An Even Playing Field?

Caster Semenya during the Women’s 800m Final on day nine of the XXI Commonwealth Games in 2018

By: Hailey Foster

“Runners, take your mark,” the announcer said. Instantly the gun sounded and they were off, running so quick that if you look away you might miss the entire race. One man manages to distance himself up front from all the others, in which the lineup includes several other men and some women as well. His stride was as long and majestic; his arms tight and to his side in efforts to reduce any extra movement that might slow him down. Here he comes rounding the last turn and onto the homestretch. It is almost an obvious win until one girl bolts down the last 100 meters and nearly passes the man and flails her entire body over the finish line. This woman managed to beat him; she outran him, was stronger, faster, better equipped with endurance and power that gave her the advantage over him. She is victorious. 

However, in today’s society, this will never happen. Women are stigmatized to never be able to compete against a man simply because of the apparent biological differences between the sexes. In a society where people are longing for equality, some might argue that it is time that discrimination against women competing against men comes to an end. Despite this, some people side with the idea that it might be dangerous for women to be placed with men because they are putting their bodies through so much strain in order to reach the level men contend at. The underlying question that will be considered is whether it should be universally acceptable that women compete against men in professional sports. 

Women in sports have continued to break records and push standards of performance. Despite this fact, men have also which further enhance their abilities to dominate over women in the same playing field. This is where performance gaps occur and will remain until women break that threshold of success over men. 

Woman competing against a man in a track race Photo courtesy of The Heritage Foundation

According to a Healthline article about women competing against men in sports, the managing director of the Centre for Elite Sports Research at the Norweigian Univeristy of Science and Technology, Øyvind Sandbakk, PhD, said sex differences between the world’s best athletes in most events have remained relatively stable at approximately 8 to 12 percent. The exceptions are events in which upper-body power is a major contributor, where this difference is more than 12 percent, and ultra-endurance swimming, where the gap is now less than 5 percent.

Alice Dreger, a sex researcher and historian of medicine and science told Healthline that part of the reason that we divide a lot of sports by gender is because the ability level is, just on average, fundamentally different between men and women. She said it’s not that different in some ways than when wresting is separated by weight class. 

Oftentimes due to the fact that professional sports are segregated mostly by gender, some people may take it as an antifeminist claim, despite some biological and scientific evidence that provides reasoning as to why women do not compete against men. 

The most common reason as to why people believe that women are not capable of being put against men is because males are biologically bigger, stronger, and faster. According to an article about sports in society, the average adult male is taller (by 5 inches) than the average adult female, with a greater percentage of muscle (40% vs. 23%) and lesser percentage of fat (15% vs. 25%), all of which works towards performance advantage in the major sports. The very best female performance in the history of sport does not even make the top 500 male performances each year.

The difference of body fat for women and men Photo courtesy of Medical News Today

“The physiological differences between male and female is what keeps them from competing against each other especially at an elite level. Looking at the world’s best results of women and men in track and field there is a large difference in performance. Men have the faster times, furthest jumps, etc. On the basis of physiological and anatomical differences, I think that at the elite level, women should compete against women, and men against men. This however does not give an excuse for gender inequality issues to remain in sport,” said Emma Wahlenmaier, a senior cross-country and track athlete at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

An honorable mention that defies standards dates back to the 2013 Ski Jumping World Cup, where men and women jumped on the same hill on the same day in the same conditions. Even though the men averaged slightly better than the women in distance and style, several of the women outscored the majority of the male jumpers. This brings forth proof to the argument that women are capable of performing at the same level, if not slightly better, than men. Despite this contentious input, men and women have similar bodies, and they become more so at the level of elite athletes provided with equal advantages and success. 

Another point worth mentioning is that due to the fact that sports are segregated, women are given the opportunity to be the overall winners more often, which models success towards younger children who idolize specific athletes. However, sex segregation can only be empowered if it is chosen and not enforced. 

It is also possible that an explanation as to why professional sports are segregated may be that it has been chosen to keep genders separated until a conclusive decision is made towards eventual integration. In hypothetical terms, the provision of equal training facilities will, over time, decrease the sporting performance disparities between men and women. In some cases where women are already capable of competing against men, mixed competition would begin immediately. If women still are not at the level to compete with men, then segregation would continue until it is satisfactory. 

Photo courtesy of Zimbio
Photo courtesy of Wired Magazine









“If a woman is able to prove that she can match the physical demand of male sports, then I say [women competing against men] should be allowed, however, I don’t see this being very common,” said Jadyn Nogues, a senior soccer player at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In terms of the future of professional sports and the possible integration of men and women competing against each other, it still remains undecided and a topic of discussion worth mentioning. Some people may argue that sports should continue to be segregated while others believe that women are capable of competing against men and should be given the opportunity to do so. The outcome of this debate continues to be determined. 

“I think the future of sports will definitely include men and women competing together. I think young girls are already trying to get into the same teams as boys, and the change will likely begin with the younger generations. There are already some sports or sport- based tv shows that include men and women competing against each other, so I believe it won’t be long before other sports join in,” said Jesse Cawley, a senior who is a diver on the swim team at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


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