Intrigued by the fact that world track records continue to tumble, researchers at UCLA made a startling discovery when they plotted the "inexorable progression of record performances" over the past century: Women are improving so much faster than men that they could overtake men in some events as early as 1998.
That is particularly astonishing because "at the moment none of the women's world record holders could even meet the qualifying standards" for men's events ranging from the marathon to the 200-meter sprint, said Brian J. Whipp, professor of physiology at UCLA. If the current trend continues, world-class women athletes could match male performances in the marathon in six years, Whipp said. Some other running events would take longer, but by the middle of the next century women could be on a par with men in nearly all of them.
"We aren't saying that is what's going to happen," Whipp said, but "unless there is some change in the progression rate that has been going on for over a century, then that is what is going to happen."
Even Whipp admits "the findings are so improbable that nobody would expect it."
He said if he had been asked before the study about the likelihood of women overtaking men so soon he would have described the chances as ranging from "implausible to highly improbable to not feasible."
The finding may be less surprising to coaches who have worked with top women athletes, although some doubt that women will ever match men in all running events.
Ernie Gregoire, who has coached both male and female Olympic athletes, said he would not be surprised to see women achieve parity in the marathon, "but 1998 might be a little soon." He also said women may never quite match men in such events as the 200-meter sprint because that race "is a matter of muscle and strength," giving men the upper hand.
Women have a better chance in the marathon, he said, because success in that race depends more on "determination and grittiness" than on strength.
But whether they ever match men in all events, Gregoire said he expects the difference to diminish because of "the marked improvement" among women athletes.
Whipp and a colleague in the UCLA Physiology Laboratory, Susan A. Ward, present their findings in today's issue of the science journal Nature.
Whipp said their findings apply only to Olympic-class athletes, not weekend runners, and they are based primarily upon world records that have continued to tumble in recent decades. What holds true for super-athletes, he said, may not necessarily hold true for lesser performers.
Whipp said he and his colleagues did not set out to prove that women were closing the gap. Instead, they were looking for some way to quantify the record so that they could study the limiting factors that should cause human performances to "plateau" at some time in the future. As with any organism, humans are limited by the metabolic rate at which they can convert food to oxygen to produce the energy needed to move their limbs. Females tend to have a slightly lower metabolic rate.
"The reason you can't run farther and faster is you cannot provide enough oxygen as the source of the energy transfer in the muscles," Whipp said. But what is the maximum metabolic rate for humans?
To address that question, the researchers prepared a series of graphs showing the progression of record performances. They had expected the performances, measured in meters per minute, to form a curve when plotted against time (the years in which the records were set), and that curve should have shown that improvements are at least beginning to level off.
"We wanted to project where the plateau will be," Whipp said. "We had expected to find a curve that we could project into a limiting value, but to our surprise it wasn't a curve."
For both men and women, the graphs produced a straight line reflecting improved performances since the beginning of this century. But the slope of the straight line for women was twice as steep as it was for men, indicating that women are improving far more rapidly.
The difference was most pronounced for the marathon, an event in which many experts have noted the continued narrowing of the gap in recent years. But women are improving more rapidly in every event. If the trend continues, the 200-meter sprint will be the last male bastion to fall. That should come about 2050.
Whipp said the mile run illustrates the rapid rate of change.
"Everyone knows that Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954," he said. "But not many people know that in the same year, Diane Leather, in England, became the first woman to break the five-minute mile.
"If you calculate the running velocity, had they been in the same race, then she would have been about 300 meters behind him, or about one lap."
He said current female record holders would have been only about half a lap behind Bannister.
"So although they are behind, they are catching up rapidly," he said. "The intriguing factors are why, and where's the limit?"
He noted that there are basic "structural differences" between men and women, including the size of the heart and lungs. Women also tend to be less powerful and smaller, "but remember our article does not reflect the average woman," he said.
"We are looking at the champion performer. We don't know what their physiological difference has been because it hasn't been studied," Whipp said.
What it all means, he noted, is that if the current trend continues, the running superstars of the future may well be women.
Faster and Faster
Women athletes are rapidly closing the gap between men and women in world-class track competition, according to researchers at UCLA who found that women are improving at about twice the rate of men.
If that trend continues, top women athletes should be on par with men by 1998 for the marathon, and they should match men in other Olympic running events in the next century.
Dotted lines in chart below project the time when the two sexes should be equal. The corresponding figures are the estimated records for the events, assuming the current trend continues. Race: 200 m. Time: 18.62 sec. Year: 2048 Race: 400 m. Time: 41.70 sec. Year: 2030 Race: 800 m. Time: 1:35.77 min. Year: 2035 Race: 1,500 m. Time: 3:13.55 min. Year: 2029 Race: Marathon Time: 2:01:59.00 hrs. Year: 1998 SOURCES: Brian J. Whipp, Dept. of Physiology, UCLA School of Medicine.