I’ve covered a number of cases here involving gender-bending questions in the world of sports, mostly because I find the subject endlessly fascinating. It’s a complicated issue, particularly when you consider the ongoing question of females competing against males, or these days, having women or girls competing against “transgender girls” who are actually men. Because males have an inherent, biological advantage in so many sports that is patently unfair to the ladies. But if a woman actually wants to try to go up against the guys, it’s hard to see where the harm is in it.
The reason I bring this up yet again is that Olympic skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn has had a request in for some time now to be allowed to go up against the men. Her request has been refused thus far (though it’s under consideration by the International Ski Federation (FIS), but they won’t be deciding until the Spring. The International Olympic Committee doesn’t allow mixed-gender racing either, so we won’t know if she’ll get her chance for a while yet. But the crew at Fivethirtyeight, who always love a good statistical analysis, took up the challenge, ran the numbers and tried to determine if Vonn could actually prevail against the boys. And it turns out it’s possible… maybe.
Vonn’s quest made us wonder: What would the Olympics look like if men and women skied against each other? We got results for four Alpine events in the Winter Olympics4 going back to 1948 and looked at the median speed5 for competitors in the men’s and women’s events in each year.
In slalom, giant slalom and the super-G, women’s and men’s performances seem to vary in comparison to each other. However, in downhill, the event that most emphasizes speed rather than making turns, the men consistently run ahead of the women — though female downhill skiers today are faster in general than the men who competed in the late 1970s and earlier.
They have all the scores set out in graphs for you at the link, but the initial conclusion looks clear. Men are faster in downhill, but when it comes to slalom, giant slalom, and Super-G, the women’s speeds are comparable. In fact, even in the downhill competition, Vonn actually logged a time faster than all the men in the 2010 Olympics. So she and her sisters on skis should be able to compete, right? Have we finally found the elusive example of a sport where women can beat the guys head to head?
Well… not so fast. As it turns out, the women race on different courses and they’re not really equal in design. Fivethirtyeight explains:
Men and women rarely race on the same courses, which are set according to different guidelines, with men’s courses requiring a greater change in elevation. Courses also vary in their steepness, but there has not been a marked difference in the average gradient of men’s and women’s courses. This means that men’s courses, which tend to have the same gradient as women’s but a greater vertical change, are usually longer than women’s. In other Winter Olympic sports where events are defined by their lengths, such as cross-country skiing and biathlon, the women’s races are also almost always significantly shorter.
So Lindsey Vonn has racked up some records with faster times than the guys, but she’s almost always competing on a shorter course. Could she make up the difference if they all raced on the same course? Impossible to say unless we experiment. But yet again, as much as it may be “unfair” to the men, I say let her give it a go and we’ll have our answer soon enough.
This isn’t much different from a previous case I looked at where a female high school golfer entered a tournament which was supposed to be for boys and won. (Her school didn’t have a girls’ golf team.) They wound up taking the trophy away from her and gave it to a boy who she’d beaten. As far as I’m concerned, she was ripped off.
So let’s allow Linsdey Vonn a shot at the men’s competition. Of course, she should probably keep in mind what happened when Annika Sorenstam tried to compete against the men in the PGA.