Patricia Nell Warren

More on Gender Controversy in Sports

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | February 05, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Caster Semenya, Chris Barnes, David Whitley, Diana Nyad, Kelly Kulick, Laura McDonough

The sports controversy over women vis a vis men that exploded with Caster Semenya in track is exploding onwards in...bowling. On January 24, leading professional bowler Chris Barnes went down in flames to a woman -- Kelly Kulick -- in the 2010 PBA's Tournament of Champions. And David Whitley over at FanHouse couldn't contain himself as he pooh-poohed Kulick's performance. He started by crowing that "bowling is not an athletic event." Then he alleged that men are "better equipped for activities requiring speed, strength, endurance....The best female cannot beat the best male except in horse racing."

Whitley needs to hold his horses. Women can and do have the edge over men in some endurance events. Ultra-marathon running and long-distance swimming are two of them.

When I was running marathons in the late 60s and early 70s, everyone in that sport watched in amazement as the 100-mile runs became the frontier -- and the occasional woman was beating men on a 1-to-1 basis in these grueling events.

We noticed an interesting phenomenon. The gap between world bests by women and men runners was widest in the sprints, thanks mostly to the male edge on short-twitch muscle performance. But the gap narrowed progressively as the distances lengthened. At 50 miles, the gap got very narrow, and at 100 miles it was sometimes even-steven. Clearly other factors besides short-twitch were in play. Women appeared to have a biochemical edge over men. Among other things, they have a higher percentage of body fat than men. The experts theorized that, once the store of glycogen in the muscles is exhausted during a very long race, women's bodies are more able to break down body fat and burn it directly as a new energy source. The longer the race, the more of a biochemical edge a woman might have.

These days, Laura McDonough is one of these super-endurance females. In the 2009 Resurrection Pass 100-miler in Alaska, she logged a winning time of 21:58. Second place went to a man, Eliseo Marquez, who crossed the finish line 1 hour 27 minutes behind her. This is not winning by a nose, folks. And it was no fluke -- Laura had pulled off a similar feat in 2005 in this same race.

Last but not least, there is the Khiel's Badwater Ultra Marathon, billed by its promoters as "the world's toughest foot race." Slogging along in temperatures that sometimes hit 130F, the competitors cover 135 miles nonstop from the lowest point in the Western hemisphere -- Badwater, in Death Valley, which is below sea level) to the highest point, which is over 12,000 feet on Mt. Whitney -- an uphill effort that is guaranteed to take the starch out of the toughest human of either gender. Several women have beaten men to win the Badwater -- the most recent being Pamela Reed, who won in both 2002 and 2003. Her 2003 winning time was 28;56;52. Behind her, three other women finished in the top 20, and 12 in the top 50, showing the female depth in the field.

Says one Badwater runner: "It's an amazing feat to merely finish... and a testament to the strength of women that they have outperformed men so many times."

Upping the ante is the "double Badwater," which is the same course out and back -- nearly 300 miles. The first woman to complete it was Rhonda Provost, who did it in 143:45, just under six days.

In recent years, science scrutinizes the why of these stunning performances by women. PubMed has an interesting page where it has collected links to studies comparing men's and women's endurance performances over distance. PubMed opines that there's a tipping point at 66 km. The evidence, according to PubMed, "supports the hypothesis that women ultramarathon runners have greater fatigue resistance than do equally trained men whose performances are superior up to the marathon distance."

The same principle applies in long-distance swimming, as I realized a few years ago when I was writing about Diana Nyad, pioneering lesbian in this sport. Here body fat gives women an edge as well -- especially in cold-water swimming where body heat has to be maintained and buoyancy is important. In recent years, the most outstanding distance swimmer has been Lynne Cox. At age fifteen and sixteen, this Boston girl broke both the men's and women's world records for swimming the English Channel. In 1974, she broke men's records again while swimming from the California coast to Catalina Island.

Back to Kelly Kulick's bowling performance, which half the world saw on ESPN. She is the first woman to win a PBA tour title. In the finals, against last year's PBA Player of the Year Barnes, she scored a devastating 265-195 win. Afterwards, Billie Jean King had this to say: "Kelly Kulick's win today is not only historic, it serves as a motivational and inspirational event for girls and women competing at all levels all around the world."

Kulick's win could happen because, six years ago, the PBA bravely opened its doors to women players after the PWBA collapsed. Women had to qualify to play -- and Kulick was the first to do so. She said, "Words can't even describe the feeling. I feel confident I can be a good enough competitor to stay out on Tour." Though she struggled for the next few years to achieve that goal, she finally delivered big-time the other day.

So -- am I advocating that men's and women's divisions be eliminated in all sports? No way. I agree that there's a place for the two divisions in most sports -- simply because, on the broad front, that performance gap does exist in many sports. Woman/woman competition does give more women a chance to win or place more of the time.

But it's time for the sports world to get past the notion that competition is an either-or thing when it comes to gender. There's a lot that we still don't know about the female human being and what she can achieve -- if she gets the right training and enough support. Fifty years ago, nobody would have believed that a woman could even run 135 miles, let alone beat a man doing it. Time has proven them wrong. At the shorter distance of 26.2 miles, U.S. women were first approved for the marathon in 1971. Once they got the full support of sports authorities, they were on fire and lowered their world times drastically between 1971 and today.

At CounterPunch several years ago, Mark Donham had a more enlightened take than David Whitley. He said: "Women are here to stay in regard to their skill levels in traditionally male activities. I say let women compete against men, starting in tennis, golf, and other such sports. Sure, the best men will currently beat the best women most of the time, but competition makes the lesser talents better. If we keep supporting women's athletics and let them start competing against men, it is only a matter of time before they start competing seriously with the men. The time will come when we have world champion women, not just a woman's champion. This is a real test of our constitution."

In short, it's important for sports to continue creating a greater diversity of arenas where women and men can compete one on one in the more strenuous and athletic sports. Hair-raising challenges and sudden surprising achievements push us towards scientific discovery of why things happen the way they do in sports. In turn, discovery tells us more about what we can do. Isn't that what sports are supposed to be about?

Meanwhile, as the Caster Semenya controversy over "unfair advantage" continues, nobody seems to be complaining about whether super-achievers like Kelly Kulick or Pamela Reed might have some unfair advantage against other women.


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One of the reasons that Cheryl Miller, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and other elite women b-ball players are so good besides talent is because they routinely played against men.

And there are certain sports such as fencing and tennis in which women compete against men and beat them.

I picked ultradistance running to talk about because a lot of people don't know about it...and because the Caster Semenya controversy is specifically pegged around women's running performance in relation to men's. The minute you mention the body-fat edge, you can also talk about ultradistance swimming.

Did not know that about the ultra-marathons. Even a regular marathon makes me tired just thinking about it!

Do they stop to sleep during those competitions? I'm not even thinking about if they take breaks, but six days without sleep can't be fun!

Good question about sleep and breaks. You can go read the Badwater rules at this page Obviously, for a race that long, a runner has to take quick breaks and leave the course to go to the toilet and take a quick rest. Also obviously, the fewer breaks you take, the better chance you have of winning. Every runner has a support vehicle that goes with him or her to provide water and bites of food, and see to any medical attention that's needed.

In the regular marathon (26.2 miles), runners are moving at a brisk pace and nobody takes any breaks.

I remember reading long ago that women had an edge over men in endurance, but that it never showed up in athletic events because none of them were grueling enough. Leave it to human beings to push the limits until we made some that were. The other one I would wonder about is the Iditarod -- how have women done in that?

I remember the first time I heard of Badwater, about 14 years ago when I was working for one of its sponsors. (Sun Precautions, which makes Solumbra clothing -- SPF well over 60 and still very light and cool.) I couldn't believe it then, and then they came up with the double Badwater. I'm waiting for the reverse-double Badwater -- downhill first, then uphill.

Susan Butcher won the Iditarod four times, and was the first woman to place in the top 10. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win it, which happened in 1985. Of course the Iditarod is a different kind of test for humans, since the dogs do all the running.

Every difference between the sexes is a tradeoff--you gain one trait by losing another. I think it's something that can be profoundly felt by anyone who transitions hormonally. It's not a question of who's better or worse, it's a question of where your strengths lie. It's too bad we're stuck in a society that only values the most stereotypical masculine of traits.