02/11/2014 10:14 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Why We Love Watching Female Figure Skaters, But Not Female Basketball Players


In the Washington Post this weekend, David Epstein takes a long look at how sex differences function in professional sports, and argues that though gender essentialist pseudoscience barred women from athletic participation for years, clear physical differences between elite men and women will persist even when everything else is equal.

Take running, for example: After erroneous reports of a pack of “wretched women” runners ruined at the 1928 Summer Games, the Olympics eliminated all women’s events that stretched beyond 200 meters. In 1967, commentators told Kathrine Switzer that her uterus would collapse if she competed in the Boston Marathon (she finished, and it did not). Women didn’t gain clearance to compete in all the track events available to men at the Olympics until 2008. As women demolished the cultural barriers to competition, Epstein writes, they swiftly gained on men, prompting some commentators to argue that they’d eventually outrun them. But their quickening pace soon plateaued, while male runners are still “ever so slightly pulling away.” Today, the male world-record holder in the 100-meter sprint is 10 percent faster than the female record holder. The fastest male marathoner also boasts a 10 percent advantage over the fastest woman. This gap is not exclusive to running: In speedskating, the gulf is 9 percent; in the long jump, it’s 19 percent; in weightlifting, it’s 25 percent.

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