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The Fall and Rise of the Gender Difference in Elite Anaerobic Performance 1952-2006


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: March 2007 - Volume 39 - Issue 3 - p 534-540
doi: 10.1249/01.mss.0000247005.17342.2b
APPLIED SCIENCES: Physical Fitness and Performance

Purpose: To compare the historical evolution of performance for males and females in anaerobically dominated sprint events in three different sports: running, swimming, and speed skating.

Methods: Times of the top six finishers in a total of 283 men's and women's Olympic and world championship finals held between 1952 and 2006 were analyzed, and performance differences between males and females were calculated for each final position.

Results: After a relatively faster rate of improvement among females from the 1950s to a nadir in the 1980s, the gender difference in anaerobic performance at the highest levels of international competition has actually increased during the last 15 yr. Overall, the time-based performance difference for all six events analyzed has increased from a low of 10.3% in the period 1976-1988 to a current difference of 11.5% for the period 2000-2005.

Conclusions: Analysis of elite sprinting performance in running, swimming, and speed skating during the last 50 yr reveals that the performance difference between males and females has ceased to narrow and has actually widened since the mid-1990s. The change observed cannot be explained by declining women's participation in sport, poorer training practice, or reduced access to technological developments, but it does coincide with dramatic improvements in the scope and sensitivity of drug testing. Current gender differences in performance, and the underlying differences in performance power, may now reasonably reflect the true physiological differences between males and females.

1Faculty of Health and Sport, Agder University College, Kristiansand, NORWAY; 2Institute for Fundamental and Clinical Human Movement Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, THE NETHERLANDS; and 3Department of Exercise and Sport Science, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, La Crosse, WI

Address for correspondence: Stephen Seiler, Ph.D., Faculty of Health and Sport, Agder University College, Service Box 422, 4604 Kristiansand, Norway; E-mail:

Submitted for publication July 2006.

Accepted for publication October 2006.

©2007The American College of Sports Medicine