See How Katie Ledecky Is Closing The Gap Between Male And Female Athletes

Katie Ledecky blew away the competition in Rio de Janeiro, and
was the standout racer of the 2016 Olympics. She won three
individual golds, plus another gold and a silver in the relays.

But it was her world records, and the margins of her victories,
that really got people talking. Ledecky set world-best times in
the 400- and 800-meter freestyle finals — winning that second
race by more than 11 seconds. Viewed on TV in the closing
stages, it looked like Ledecky was swimming
in a pool by herself.

Then there was the comment from her teammate Conor Dwyer, who
in April
told USA Swimming that he’d seen Ledecky “break a lot of
guys in practice.” A couple of male swimmers had been pulled
from the pool, he said, after getting beaten by her.

So with fellow female swimmers trailing in Ledecky’s wake, do
men really provide her only serious competition? And how near
is she to closing the gender gap in athletic performance?

To find out, BuzzFeed News analyzed swimming and
track-and-field events over Olympic history. We also looked at
current world records, plus the full history of world record
performances for the long-distance swimming events where
Ledecky is most dominant.

The analysis confirms that Ledecky is a truly remarkable
athlete who is narrowing the gender gap between male and female
athletes. She isn’t yet into uncharted territory. But then
again, she’s probably still a couple of years away from her

Here are the gender gaps in race speeds for Olympic
swimming, over the last century.

Here are the gender gaps in race speeds for Olympic swimming, over the last century.

View this image ›

Each point shows an event
competed by both men and women in the Olympics, with the
gap between the average speeds of the male and female gold
medalists calculated as a percentage. Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via

ID: 9479294

Ledecky’s astonishing 800-meter freestyle performance doesn’t
feature on this chart because men don’t swim that distance at
the Olympics. Still, in the 400 meters, Ledecky swam only 6.31%
slower than Australia’s Mack Horton, who took the men’s gold.

Only one female gold-medal swimmer has ever gotten closer to
the equivalent winning man. At the 1980 Moscow Games, East
Germany’s Petra Schneider was just 4.85% slower in the
400-meter medley than the men’s winner, Aleksandr Sidorenko of
the Soviet Union.

But there are two reasons to put an asterisk next to
Schneider’s performance. First, the Moscow Games was boycotted
by the United States — which usually sends the strongest men’s
team to the Olympics. The absence of American men seemed to
narrow the gender gap across the board.

Schneider was also a victim of East Germany’s systematic sports
program, which boosted performances while risking athletes’
health. In 2005 she
told the German TV network ARD that she wanted her last
remaining national record to be erased from the books, because
it was tainted by doping.

Here are the gender gaps for Olympic track-and-field

Here are the gender gaps for Olympic track-and-field events.

View this image ›

Gender gaps calculated for
track events as before. For jumps, the percentage gaps are
calculated from the winning distances or heights.
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via

ID: 9479302

Track and field is messier, because you can’t directly compare
events like hurdles (which are higher for men) or throws (where
the men’s projectiles are heavier). But where men and women do
exactly the same event, there is again only one performance in
Olympic history that came nearer to closing the gender gap than
Ledecky’s 400-meter freestyle in Rio.

In 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, American sprinter Florence
Griffith Joyner — known as “Flo-Jo” — ran the 100 meters just
5.88% slower than her compatriot Carl Lewis. Flo-Jo never
tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, but other
athletes were suspicious of changes in her physique, which were
accompanied by sudden improvements in her times. Flo-Jo died in
1998, aged 38, from an epileptic seizure.

Ledecky’s steady progress to world dominance, by contrast,
shows none of the sudden leaps forward that happened with some
of the best athletes in the 1980s. Sports scientists attribute
her blistering pace to the mechanics of her freestyle stroke,
which some have said has a
“galloping” style is usually seen in only the best male

As she cuts through the water, Ledecky’s form is close to

ID: 9479348

As she cuts through the water, Ledecky’s form is close to
perfection. “I think her stroke is just really, really good,”
Michael Joyner, an exercise physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in
Rochester, Minnesota, told BuzzFeed News. “Watch her hands:
There are very few bubbles.”

The colored lines on the charts, statistically fitted through
the points, show how athletic gender gaps narrowed over most of
the 20th century, but have since leveled out. (The slight humps
in the 1980s coincide with the peak use of steroids, before
drug testing became as rigorous as it is today. Men, whose
systems are already flooded with muscle-building testosterone,
probably gained slightly less from doping than women did.)

Back in 2004, a
provocative analysis published in the leading science
journal Nature extrapolated from the earlier narrowing
of the gender gap to argue that women could be running the 100
meters faster than men by the 2156 Olympics. But that study
assumed that men’s and women’s times would both keep steadily
improving. In fact,
they have started to level off, as both sexes approach the
limits of what the human body can do.

This has left a persistent gap between women and men. According
to an
analysis of world record performances led by Valérie
Thibault and Jean-François Toussaint of INSEP, the Institute
of Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology in Paris, the
gender gap has been roughly constant in swimming since about
1980, in track events since 1985, and in jumps since 1982.

Over the first 80-odd years of the 20th century, the gender gap
narrowed as female athletes gradually benefitted from more
athletic opportunities and better training. But since then, he
said, “the gender gaps are very stable.” They reflect the fact
that men tend to be bigger and have proportionately more
muscle, giving them greater speed and power.

Here are the gender gaps for current world records.

Here are the gender gaps for current world records.

View this image ›

Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via International
Association of Athletics Federations and FINA, the
international swimming federation.

ID: 9479306

Again, Ledecky’s performances stand out. And Thibault and
Toussaint’s study helps explain why: Distance swimming events
have long been where women come closest to matching male

Different types of events have different characteristic gender
gaps. They are widest for the jumps — especially the pole vault
— where men’s greater power gives them a formidable advantage.
But for distance swimming, endurance and technique become more
important, and the genders compete more evenly.

Even so, Ledecky’s record in the 1,500-meter freestyle — an
event that women don’t get to swim in the Olympics — is
historically unprecedented. When she set the world record in
August 2015, she swam just 5.8% slower than China’s Sun Yang,
who set the equivalent men’s record at the 2012 London
Olympics. No woman has ever gotten closer to the men’s world
record at this event.

Despite her dominance at 800 meters in Rio, it’s here that
Ledecky starts to seem human, after all. Her new world record
was 6.74% slower than the men’s mark set by Lin Zhang of China
in 2009. That gender gap is near the middle of the pack for
women’s 800-meter world-record holders in recent decades.

Good as she was in Rio, Ledecky is likely to get even better.
She is just 19, and according to another study by Toussaint and
Geoffroy Berthelot, also at INSEP, swimmers tend
to peak at 21.

So if you want to see just how close Ledecky can come to the
men, tune in to the world championships, to be held in
Budapest, Hungary, in 2017, and Gwangju, South Korea, in 2019.
At those meets, unlike the Olympics, men and women will compete
at both 800-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle. It should be quite
a show.

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