Following a piece on female racing drivers, I recently challenged followers of this blog to cite one competitive sport where women performed as well as men at the top level. A number of people mentioned long-distance swimming, something I’ve heard claimed before, so I’ve just done a little research.
Long-distance swimming certainly seems to be a sport in which the top women appear to compete with men in terms of race times. Races tend to be held in open water, often cold open water, and women sometimes win. It has been suggested that women have an innate advantage over men because their higher fat proportions help keep them buoyant – so less energy needs to be expended simply keeping afloat – while their lower muscle proportions have a similar impact, because muscle is denser than fat. Also, women’s higher fat proportions help insulate them, as less energy is expended in maintaining the body’s core temperature. This female advantage is accentuated as the water temperature drops.
It is noteworthy, then, that in the Olympics at least, there are separate men’s and women’s competitions, and to discover why, we need only look at the results for the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio. The longest Olympic competition is the open water marathon 10 kilometre. The results for the men’s competition are here, the women’s competition here.
The bottom line? For the 23 men who completed the swim, the times were between 1:52:59.8 (two men achieved that, a photo finish placed them first and second) and 1:59:17.2 (an Egyptian letting down the side, otherwise the slowest time would have been 1:54:33.6). Of the 25 women, the times were between 1:56:32.1 and 2:05:19.1. I couldn’t find a record of the prevailing weather conditions when the men’s and women’s races were held. Wind is a particular problem in open water swimming, which explains why swimmers avoid eating onions before big events.
Had the competition been a unisex one, men would have taken the first 22 places.
Another feminist myth destroyed. Next?