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The physical differences between female and male athletes are obvious - but how do they affect performance in sport?
Kevin Netto, Presented by
Erin Byrnes

The Conversation
1 Aug 2016 - 7:30 AM  UPDATED 1 Aug 2016 - 7:30 AM

Ask women's sport critics to explain why, and you're almost guaranteed to get some variation of the same answer - women aren't as fast/strong, or the game isn't as quick. 

It's a mindset that's incredibly frustrating for followers of women's sport. Women are never going to be at the same level as men. That's not why we watch - it's like refusing to eat strawberry ice cream because it doesn't taste like chocolate. 

Women's athletic competitions are fascinating in their own right, and the sooner people stop trying to compare female sports to male, the sooner they'll become fans. But that's another article for another day. 

Right now we're here to talk about physiology, and the exact science behind why women will never be as strong/fast/whatever as men. 

Science shows that women need to expend a far higher amount of force and energy to even come close to producing similar results. Therefore, it's logical to say that women work way harder at sports than men, with not much to show for it.

Stick with us as we explain...

The biggest discrepancy in muscle distribution between a female and male body is that by and large, women have less muscle in the upper body (especially around the shoulders and neck) compared to men. The difference can be as large as 30 per cent in healthy individuals.

When applied to sport, the impact is clear. Let’s compare the world record for a sport such as the javelin to that of the 100m sprint. The difference between the distance the javelin has been thrown in the men’s and women’s world records is around 30 per cent. The time difference between male and female athletes in the 100m sprint is about 10 per cent.

In sports tennis, golf or cricket, female athletes are substantially less strong and powerful in the upper body compared to their male counterparts.

For any given task in these sports, women have to work harder. To drive a golf ball 200 metres, for instance, a woman would need to use 80-90 per cent of her maximum force whereas a man might draw upon 60 per cent.

Men have larger hearts, greater blood volume, more red blood cells, greater lung capacity and are on average, taller (15cm) and larger (10kg) than women.

The gap does narrow in athletic populations, but in terms of sports performance this means that for any given athletic task – such as running 100 metres in 11 seconds – a woman athlete would be using almost 100 per cent of her potential, whereas a male athlete might use 90 per cent of his potential to complete that goal.

There are exceptions, such as long distance swimming. Many women outswim men as a woman’s greater fat mass allows better buoyancy and as such, more efficiency through the water.

However, in endurance and ultra-endurance land-based events, a male athlete’s greater physiological potential has the upper hand.

What about in the gym?

Another glaringly large difference between the sexes is the effect athletic training has on female and male bodies. Because of differences in sex hormones, male athletes have a greater response to training stimuli – such as weight training and strength and conditioning – compared to female athletes.

Male muscle tends to grow larger and stronger than female muscle, given comparable training regimes. This again points to differences in athletic potential.

At the Rio Olympics, only equestrian and one sailing event (Nacra 17) will have mixed competitions, where men and women compete for medals on an equal basis.

Surely women are less likely to be injured, though?

Nope! Statistics show, in non-contact sports, that female athletes suffer more knee and shoulder injuries compared to males. This has been attributed to a wider pelvis (thus more knee injuries) and smaller muscle mass in the upper body (thus more shoulder injuries).

So for any given exposure to training or competition, female athletes are more at risk of injury. Needless to say, this would have dire impact on the earning potential of the individual.

You can’t argue with science

The biomechanical and physiological facts say female athletes work harder than their male counterparts to achieve an absolute target – especially in sports such as tennis and cricket.

They expose their bodies to similar, if not higher risks of injury, which could potentially be career ending.

Science essentially backs up what anyone with a brain will tell you. Females will never be able to match it physically with males, so stop using that as a reason not to watch women's sport. Send this article to any haters in your life, along with a schedule for the Matildas, Hockeyroos, and Opals Olympic matches. We guarantee they'll thank us in a few weeks.

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