The difference between a great man and a great woman is complicated, arithmetically speaking
It's tempting to rely on conversions that penalize all but a scattering of fast women.
During the webcast of the HOKA ONE ONE Carbon X 2 100K, reliable warhorse commentator Toni Reavis—one of the few people in the sport who can couple legitimate excitement to helpful sidebars—observed that the women’s world record for the distance, 6:33:11, is only about six percent slower than the men’s, 6:09:14, a mark Jim Walmsley was then en route to missing by only a bland 50-meter-wide sliver of sunbaked Arizona tarmac. Reavis noted that this figure was significantly less than the difference of about 10 percent observed between the marathon world records held by Eliud Kipchoge (2:01:39) and Brigid Koskei (2:14:04). (More precisely, the women’s 100K and marathon world records were, and remain, 6.48 and 10.21 percent slower than the men’s.)
I wish I could recall Reavis’ exact phrasing—and I’m not sifting through six-plus hours of coverage, however excellent it was, to find it—because I can’t remember whether he cited the 10 percent difference as being specific to the marathon distance or as being applicable to the whole spectrum of distance events. In any case, it’s a topic worth looking at, because, while you’ll hear any number of ostensibly wise coaches cite a single concrete number when asked “How much slower than males are the best females?”, the question itself needs more honing.
Why? Well, starting at pretty high levels of the sport, the performance difference between the best men (or boys) and the best women (or girls) depends strongly on how stringent a definition of “elite” is applied, and therefore on what specific level of running you’re looking at. While it’s true that Kipchoge (and Kenenisa Bekele) and Koskei are separated by 10.2 percent, a scan of the World Athletics all-time marathon lists reveals that:
The PR of the 100th fastest male (2:05:49) is 12.8 percent than that of the 100th fastest woman (2:21:56).
At 500th place (2:08:15 vs. 2:27:02), the difference grows to 14.6 percent.
At 1000th place (2:09:50 vs. 2:29:58), it's up to 15.5 percent.
At 2,000th place (2:11:45 and 2:34:45), it's risen to 17.5 percent.
We* can all agree—without a peep of resistance offered directly, exchanged privately between haters, or even imagined—that these are all pretty damned fast marathon times. Yet within this tiny human range (“tiny” in terms of the total fraction of marathoners who ever get there, i.e., smaller than 0.1 percent, not “tiny” in terms of the practical implications of the within-range performance differences), one observes a mathematically profound narrowing of the performance gap as one moves up the scale from the arguable edge of world-class to world-recordholders: From of over one-sixth on the whole to about one-tenth.
(I have all of the answers as to why this is, and if you were as dexterous at gathering, assimilating, and analyzing information as I am, you probably would, too. But you’re not. And disclosing those answers now would spoil a lot of scams for a lot of people, including me, so you’ll have to wait, and even then you’ll be required to pay dearly for the privilege. For now, just know that I’ve been watching a lot of spy movies in my winter carnival of spare time, and also that the physiological, cultural and astrological reasons for this “elastic gap” don’t matter right now nearly as much as the fact that it exists and we* need to discuss it, one-sidedly.)
Most of the aforementioned concrete numbers I see being used by even very accomplished coaches—and, for that matter, self-coached athletes—tend to implicitly penalize women, as they fall closer to 10 percent than to 17 or 18 percent, and are therefore more closely associated with extremely unusual performances by the best women in history than they are with simply great running.
Moving to conventional distances, how much slower are the women’s outdoor track world records than the men’s? With values in percent:
There are various obvious problems with using single data points to establish group differences, and a few less-obvious problems related to female outliers in almost all sports being more pronounced outliers than their male counterparts. But the overall lesson from the above smattering of data is that only the very best women approach times within 12 percent of the very best men. At the same time, a man who is on the edge of world-class, the 2,000th-place 2:11:45 runner above, is only 8.30 percent slower than Eliud Kipchoge’s record, whereas an equally competitive woman by world ranking, the 2:34:45 runner above, is 15.43 slower than Brigid Kosgei’s record. As lonely as it for anyone approaching the tip of the spire of excellence in any endeavor, it’s positively desolate for women marathoners.
As you may have guessed, in the other distance events, the same progressive place-for-place widening between men and women occurs; that is, the men’s and women’s world records are closer than the 100th-best men’s and women’s marks, which are closer than the 500th-best, and so on. Where this difference might stabilize, if it does, no one knows, other than me.
There are are a few practical results of this. One is that it can lead to a variety of bad, easily corrected assumptions. I’ve probably made more than a few in this area myself over the years, although I think I was at least getting wise over a decade ago. One is that while the women’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials standard is objectively easier than then men’s, it’s a matter of a flooding by women at the qualifying margin. Had the standards been 2:19:00 and 2:43:00 in 2020, a 17.3 percent difference, instead of the 2:19:00/2:45:00 standards in play, a 18.7 percent difference, 223 fewer women would have qualified—almost half the field!—and there would have been 235 male and 277 female qualifiers by marathon time alone. While it’s easy to look at keeping the difference in standards at around 17.5 percent to assure something like an equal chance for both sexes, it’s hard to imagine undoing all of those hundreds of realized dreams I saw unfold in videos posted online, mostly from the California International Marathon, of women flooding cross the line in the last 100 or so seconds before the existing cut-off. I mean, that’s not what would actually happen, but you get the gist.
I dug a little into this with U.S. high school boys’ and girls’ records and lists, but the fact that both this demographic and the events considered are more constrained than in the above (one-sided) discussion might make any inferences drawn from the numbers unreliable. Still, a few basic patterns emerge: The girls’ distance records are about 13.5 to 15 percent slower than the boys’ records, and one sees a notably greater spread just between #1 and #10 on the girls’ side than on the boys’ side (the stoically anachronistic T&FN doesn’t offer deeper lists than top tens).
All of these trends taken together seem to signal a basic difference in levels of participation between males and females, from youth in the United States to the worldwide athletics scene. If we* compare the number of high-school boys who run within even 10 percent of Lucas Verzbicas’ 8:29.46 national 2-mile record every year, or 9:20.4, why is it so much greater than the number of girls who get within 10 percent of Mary Cain’s 9:38.62, or 10:36.5? (I can’t prove this assertion right now, but there will be trouble if you don’t grant it to me anyway.) Are more potentially outstanding girl runners than boy runners “hiding” in other sports in high school? If so, God bless every last one of them. I’ll probably never write about any of them.
The apparently greater gap between the best U.S. high-school girls and their male counterparts and the best male and female pros could be chalked up to as-yet-undetermined physical factors, or it could be a matter of generally poorer coaching of good, but not necessarily top-class, teenage girls. For a lot of reasons, I think the path of a good-but-not-blue-chip high-school girl is a lot lonelier and more treacherous than that of a corresponding boy, especially when she’s the only good runner on her team, and even—and often especially—when concerned people are watching. I think most folks who have coached high-school teams or have merely been around the teenage-runner environment for a while have an inkling of what I mean by this. But as always, it’s a categorically bad idea to make generalizations, here or anywhere.
Having not insulted or even called into question any particular individuals, trends or or institutions—and I came close, because obviously some of the marks I have listed or referred to indirectly here invite various degrees of unflattering speculation—I can’t really wrap this up with a flourish. But try this: It’s common for knowledgeable track and field people tend to extract findings from very small running populations and extrapolate these to larger populations. While they usually know it’s a mistake to do this when the larger population is “joggers,” a lot of them miss how erroneous this can be even when working with damned fine women runners.