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 peak.
Here are the gender gaps in race speeds for Olympic swimming, over the last century.
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 doping 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 events.
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. (Her performance in Seoul was also aided by a tailwind of 3 meters per second, too strong for it to be counted as an Olympic record.) 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 swimmers.
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.
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 performances.
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 Zhang Lin 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.
This story has been updated with information about how a tailwind aided Flo-Jo's performance in Seoul.
Peter Aldhous is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. His secure PGP fingerprint is 225F B2AF 4B8E 6E3D B1EA 7F9A B96E BF7D 9CB2 9B16
Contact Peter Aldhous at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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