Published online 29 September 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040927-9


Will women outpace men in 2156?

Prediction of female champion sprinters causes controversy.

Exercise experts question the prediction that women will outpace men.Exercise experts question the prediction that women will outpace men.© Getty

The 2156 Olympic Games is bound to hold unforeseen events: a balmy Antarctic venue, say, or virtual reality volleyball. But according to a group of UK scientists, it might also go down in history as the first year that women beat men in the 100-metre sprint.

To come up with this controversial prediction, epidemiologist Andrew Tatem of the University of Oxford and his colleagues plotted men and women's winning 100-metre Olympic times since 1900, and used this to forecast how race times would change in the future.

Women's times have been improving steadily faster than men's in recent years, they showed. If this trend continues, they calculate that a woman should be the fastest person in the world 152 years from now, give or take an ample statistical margin of 724 years. Women would triumph in a time of 8.079 seconds compared to men's 8.098, they report in Nature1.

Physiology sceptics

The study revives a long-standing debate about whether the gender gap in athletics will ever disappear. In 1998, for example, a paper in Nature predicted that women would surpass men's marathon times in 19822. They did not.

“This study is flawed at a fundamental level.”

Exercise physiologist Carl Foster
University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse

As they were about the previous prediction, sports scientists are sceptical about this one. They say the reason women's performance has been improving faster is because women have had growing opportunities to participate in sport and train at a competitive level. But, they say, this faster pace of advancement will level out before women's times overtake the men's.

The conventional view is that there are basic differences between male and female physiology that mean men will always maintain around a 10% advantage in strength and endurance sports. Because the new analysis ignores this, "it is flawed at a fundamental level," says exercise physiologist Carl Foster at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.

<mediar rid='m1'/>For example, testosterone in men tends to create more muscle and oxygen-carrying haemoglobin than women possess. And female reproductive hormones mean that women, including super-lean athletes, tend to carry around more fat for their body weight than men, and this slows them down.

To illustrate these points, exercise scientist Kirk Cureton of the University of Georgia, Athens, and his team made men carry weights that mimicked the body-fat ratio of women. When he put them on a treadmill, some of the gender gap in performance disappeared. Similarly, bleeding men of some of their haemoglobin evened up performances to some extent3,4.

Outstrip tease

“If I'm wrong anyone is welcome to come and question me about the result after the 2156 Olympics.”

Epidemiologist Andrew Tatem
University of Oxford, UK

Indeed, athletics experts rack their brains to think of any sport in which women's physical characteristics might allow them to outstrip their male counterparts. Swimming the English Channel might be one event, suggests Foster, because fat is so crucial for keeping warm.

For his part, Tatem acknowledges that there are difficulties in foretelling the Olympic future, but says there is no proof that women's times will level out. "I should be happy to stake my reputation on the predicted date," he says. "If I'm wrong anyone is welcome to come and question me about the result after the 2156 Olympics." 

University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse

University of Oxford, UK

  • References

    1. Tatem A. J., Guerra C. A., Atkinson P. M. & Hay S. I. Nature, 431. 525 (2004). | Article | PubMed |
    2. Whip B. J. & Ward S .A. Nature, 355. 25 (1992). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |
    3. Cureton K. J. & Sparling P. B. Med. Sci. Sports Exer., 12. 228 - 294 (1980).
    4. Cureton K. J. & et al. Eur. J. Appl. Physiol. Occup. Physiol., 54. 656 - 660 (1986). | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |