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At the Rio Olympics, Women Athletes Bump Against a Gold Ceiling

At the Rio Olympics, Women Athletes Bump Against a Gold Ceiling Outside of tennis, no sporting event gives female athletes as much exposure and prestige as the Olympics. Women often dominate the story lines and conversations during the competition, and the Games have made stars out of sprinters ( Florence Griffith Joyner), swimmers ( Janet Evans), marathoners ( Joan Benoit), skiers ( Lindsey Vonn), figure skaters ( Dorothy Hamill), milers ( Mary Decker), speed skaters (Bonnie Blair), soccer players (Mia Hamm), beach volleyball players (Misty May-Treanor) and, of course, gymnasts ( Mary Lou Retton).

For all the progress women have made, there are vestiges of the kinds of rules that prohibited women from running Olympic marathons before 1984, from wrestling until 2004 and from boxing until 2012. The opening weekend offers an example: The men’s cycling road race is about 62 miles longer than the women’s, which is 85 miles long. That is 27 miles shorter than the distance that Ironman triathletes (female and male) complete—before hopping off their bikes and running a full marathon.

Retired professional cyclist Sara Headley says there is no dispute women can go as far as men. “What is this saying about us that our races are so much shorter?” she asks. “Isn’t this 2016?”

A spokesman for the International Cycling Union said cycling is a team sport and that fewer nations would be able to compete if women raced the same distance as men. He also said the shorter women’s course makes for a more entertaining race.

Sports scientists say there is no physiological reason for shortening courses for female athletes or, for that matter, games such as tennis, where women play the best out of three sets versus best of five for men. In fact, some research suggests women are built to go farther than men, if at a slower pace. While that remains unproven, the notion that women have inferior endurance capacities has been debunked.

“That’s totally anachronistic,” says Michael Joyner, a former competitive marathoner who studies sports science at the Mayo Clinic.

Elite male athletes are generally faster and stronger than their female counterparts, explaining why they compete in different categories. But not every Olympic sport is a test of speed and strength.

Take rifle competitions. In coed NCAA rifle championships, women shoot just as well as men, according to a study published in April in the journal Sex Roles. “Our findings call into question current Olympic gender segregation practices in shooting events,” wrote the authors, University of San Diego psychology professor Nadav Goldschmied and his student, Jason Kowalczyk.

Shooting, for decades a men-only Olympic sport, started allowing women to compete against men in 1968. After American riflewoman Margaret Murdock took a silver competing against men in 1976, rifle competitions were divided by gender.

When Chinese skeet shooter Zhang Shan took gold—and set a world record—competing against men at the 1992 Olympics, shotgun events also got divided by gender. Not only that, because women shoot either fewer rounds or from shorter distances, “it’s not even possible to compare their performances with men,” says Ms. Murdock, now a retired nurse in Kansas. She says she believes that leaders of the sport “didn’t like women beating men.”[…]

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