Back in the 1990s, I frequently read that women athletes were Closing the Gap with men; if trends continued, in the 21st Century Olympics, women would be just as fast as men. So, I did a big quantitative study on the size of the gender gap in track in all Olympics for a 1997 article in National Review entitled Track and Battlefield:
Everybody knows that the "gender gap" in physical performance between male and female athletes is rapidly narrowing. Moreover, in an opinion poll just before the 1996 Olympics, 66% claimed "the day is coming when top female athletes will beat top males at the highest competitive levels." The most publicized scientific study supporting this belief appeared in Nature in 1992: "Will Women Soon Outrun Men?" Physiologists Susan Ward and Brian Whipp pointed out that since the Twenties women's world records in running had been falling faster than men's. Assuming these trends continued, men's and women's marathon records would equalize by 1998, and during the early 21st Century for the shorter races.
This is not sports trivia. Whether the gender gap in athletic performance stems from biological differences between men and women, or is simply a social construct imposed by the Male Power Structure, is highly relevant both to fundamental debates about the malleability of human nature, as well as to current political controversies such as the role of women in the military.
When everybody is so sure of something, it's time to update the numbers.
I discovered, however, that the narrowing was only up through 1988. The fall of the Berlin Wall and better testing for artificial male hormones had caused the Olympic track gender gap to grow from the 1988 Olympics to the 1996 Olympics.
Slowly, my argument has carried the field over the last 15 years. Thus, when a Chinese woman swam the last 50m of her race on Saturday night faster than Ryan Lochte, the men's gold medalist, swam his last 50m of the men's version of the race, the New York Times reporter did not celebrate it as a Breakthrough for Female Equality, but instead treated it as presumptive evidence of something fishy going on:
China Pool Prodigy Churns Wave of Speculation
By JERÉ LONGMAN
At 16, the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen is one of the youngest competitors in the Olympics and so far the most remarkable. What she has done in the pool is the water-based equivalent of what Usain Bolt did on the track four years ago in Beijing.
On Saturday night, Ye not only shattered the world record in the 400 individual medley, winning gold in 4 minutes 28.43 seconds, she also swam the final 50 meters faster than Ryan Lochte did in winning the men’s race.
It was really a little less amazing than it sounds -- Lochte was apparently taking it easy on the last length after blowing away the field earlier. But still ...
On Monday, Ye returned to the pool and set an Olympic record of 2:08.39 in the semifinals of the 200 individual medley, her best event.
There is nothing to indicate that she is anything more than a great swimmer from a country that holds about a fifth of the world’s population, a teenager who relies on the latest scientific training and the kind of adolescent certainty that makes her unaware of any limitations. The Chinese have pledged to obey the rules. And Ye dismissed any concerns about doping.
Yet women’s swimming does not permit itself naïve and untempered adulation. Not after the systematic East German doping of the 1970s and ’80s. Not after Chinese scandals in the 1990s. Not after Michelle Smith of Ireland won four medals at the Atlanta Games in 1996 under disputed circumstances and was later barred from competition for tampering with a urine sample.
The response to unsurpassed achievement now falls somewhere uncomfortably between amazement and incredulity, that gray area between celebration and suspicion.
“That’s pretty unbelievable,” David Sharpe, a Canadian swimmer, said of Ye’s finishing kick on Saturday, in which she covered her final 50 meters in 28.93, faster than Lochte’s 29.10. “No one really understands how that happened.”
Ye swam her final 100 meters of the 400 I.M. in 58.68 seconds. Lochte was only three-hundredths of a second faster. No one could immediately remember a woman closing faster than 61 seconds.
“Interesting,” said Natalie Coughlin, an American with 12 Olympic medals.
“Insane,” said Stephanie Rice of Australia, the 2008 Olympic champion and former world-record holder in the 400 I.M. “Fifty-eight is out of control.”
Lochte made a cordial joke about being outkicked. On Monday, Michael Phelps, who finished fourth in the men’s 400 I.M., smiled at a question about Ye’s closing speed and said: “She almost outswam me, too. We were all pretty shocked. It’s pretty impressive that she went that fast.”
No swimmers accused Ye, who is 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 141 pounds, of using illicit substances to fuel her kick. Medalists and, at random, other athletes are tested at the Games.
But John Leonard, an American who is executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association and has long voiced suspicions of doping in China, told The Guardian on Monday that he found Ye’s performance “disturbing.”
Caitlin Leverenz, an American who finished third in Ye’s heat in the 200 on Monday, said: “The Chinese have had a history in the past of doping, so I don’t think people are crazy to point fingers, but I don’t think that’s my job to do right now. I’m just trying to do my best.”
Frank Busch, national team director for USA Swimming, was more gracious, calling Ye’s final 100 meters on Saturday “more than remarkable, phenomenal.”
Was he concerned that what Ye had done was not legitimate?
“I would never go there,” Busch said.
Fifteen years ago, this healthy skepticism would have been rare.