Dr Ed Coughlan: Let’s keep the focus on the science rather than tedious gender debate

The recent furore caused by John McEnroe’s comments about Serena Williams was as much down to a slow news day as anything else, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.

Back in 1992, John Gray wrote his Number 1 bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to encourage us to celebrate our differences in the hope that we would cease to compare and contrast across the gender divide.

As a coach, I have been fortunate to work at the elite level with both male and female athletes and I have yet, and nor do I ever believe I will, come across any athlete who wishes to compete on a consistent level against the opposite sex.

Notwithstanding sports where they already do, such as equestrian and sailing, or sports where they probably could, such as snooker, darts and curling, to name but a few.

But in sports where physicality and physiology are rate-limiting factors to success, athletes are the first to tell you that it is a moot point. Illustrated best in 2013 when Andy Murray positively responded to a query whether he’d interested in playing against Serena Williams, who herself positively responded: “That would be fun. I doubt I’d win a point, but that would be fun.” Not surprising, the science supports the athlete’s viewpoint.

A seminal paper from French sport scientist Valérie Thibault and colleagues published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2010 identified consistent performance trends between men and women that have plateaued since 1983. Their analysis comprised of 82 quantifiable and comparable events since the beginning of the modern Olympic era across sports such as swimming, athletics, track cycling, weightlifting, and speed skating.

Obviously, as more and more women began to compete in Olympic events throughout the 20th century, the initial wide gap between genders quickly narrowed to where it has consistently remained since 1983.

For example, in 800m freestyle swimming there is a consistent 5.5% difference between elite men and elite women. This stretches to 18.8% in the case of the long jump. This suggests that without any one-sided technological advancements in the future, performances are likely to evolve and progress at a similar rate for both men and women.

Or so we think. Scientists who have published in world-renowned journal Nature have suggested that it is merely a matter of time before performance equality is the norm. Citing centuries of social restrictions as the main reason for the difference between performances in the 21st century. They go so far as to suggest that if trends continue, slowly but surely, the 2156 Olympics could see the first gender neutral games.

In some events, such as ultra-endurance running, this suggestion is already a reality. The underlying physiology of a world-class ultra-endurance athlete is the capacity to convert calories into energy. Sport science research tells us that women are more efficient at converting glycogen, the body’s secondary long-term energy storage fuel, into energy than men. So over ultra-endurance events, sometimes totalling 150km, women are better equipped to continue to provide their body with fuel, once their glucose levels begin to drop.

For others, it is nothing more than science fiction to think that way as the differences have a lot more to do with the innate characteristics between men and women that are determined by genetics and hormones.

Genetics research tells us that men grow taller than women consistently across the world’s populations and societies.

Hormone research tells us that the basic differences between oestrogen in women and testosterone in men is where the divide is at its greatest. As a result of higher oestrogen levels, women have more body fat than men. Even elite long distance female athletes report 8% body fat, while their male counterparts report 4%. Yet the fact that female athletes have less muscle mass provides them with greater range of motion, a performance advantage in sports such as gymnastics.

However, the advantage of naturally producing testosterone in males is the root cause of developing larger muscle mass. Men have also evolved to have a greater proportion of Type-2 muscle fibres which have been consistently linked to strength, power, and speed generation.

Finally, testosterone is linked to the production of more red blood cells in the body. These oxygen-rich blood cells are commonly referred to as the powerhouse of athleticism as they are responsible for how aerobically fit an individual can become.

The genetic height advantage experienced by men is down to longer and larger bones which the fundamentals of physics tells us will produce more powerful levers for greater mechanical movement. This structural base provides the foundation to carry larger muscles.

However, the bigger they are, the further they fall. Women are known to have an advantage in balance-related movements given the lower centre of mass and pelvic orientation.

Yet recently Dr Eanna Falvey, head of the British & Irish Lions medical team, spoke of how women are six times more likely to experience an ACL knee injury than men. A fact that is probably linked to muscular and physical differences around the pelvis and lower extremities.

This back and forth can continue ad nauseam. The fact is men and women are so different physically and physiologically, that rather than looking for differences, we should celebrate both separately.

For the fortnight that’s in it at Wimbledon, I fondly recall in equal measure watching footage of Becker against Edberg, and Navratilova against Evert in the 1980s, Sampras against Agassi, Graf against Sanchez-Vicario in the 1990s and Federer against Nadal and the Williams sisters against each other, or anyone else, for that matter.

Why the media continue to look for a story where there is none is both tiresome and lazy in equal measure.

The recent furore caused by John McEnroe’s comments about Serena Williams was as much down to a slow news day as anything else. Williams’ handling of the situation within the 140 characters allowed on Twitter showed her as the class act she is.

That said, I was surprised when I searched and found the full interview to hear what was actually said. Suffice to say, McEnroe was stitched up.

The once cartoonish figure that graced the world’s tennis courts has mellowed in his old age to become one of the world’s leading commentators of a sport that has given him so much. His admiration of Serena Williams as the legend she has become is apparent for all to hear. And to his credit most of his comments suggest that he has done his homework on the science also.

The sooner we realise how far we have come in the last century and how much more needs to be done in the next century, the sooner we will appreciate how much sport has to offer everyone.

This journey will be made quicker, with more benefits to more people, if we allow our differences to be celebrated and our similarities to be supported, equally.


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