Battle Of The Sexes

A strange discussion has suddenly broken out over at FasterSkier in response to some comments that Marit Björgen made about how she’d like be able to race the 50km distance just like the men do.

A reader  sent me a note asking if I’d specifically address this statement from the comments:

Looking at the times of sprint races (prologues) when men and women have gone the same distance, in almost identical conditions, you will see that the fastest women is normally a similar speed to the last man. This would leave only the last man in the field fighting for his manhood, and trying not to get chicked.
It is similar all the way up the distances if you look at the split speeds. Look at the times the women come through 1,3 then 5km (whatever the split points are on that day) then look at the mens times. Aften the first women is about the same as the last mn.

As far as I can tell, the commenter xclad’s first assertion is correct. Taking major international sprint races (WC, TDS, OWG and WSC) I found 42 instances over the past 7-8 years where the men and women appeared to use the same course for a sprint competition. In these cases, the fastest woman in qualification is in fact pretty close to the slowest man in qualification. The best a woman fared that I saw was to only have ~73% of the men ahead of her in qualification speed. Nearly half the time, the best woman would have been last in the men’s qualification.

As for xclad’s comment about split times in distance events, I can’t say. I don’t have access to split times for every race. But given that the disparity in the sprint times, it seems like that may at least be plausible.

I do have one caveat to add. I wrote a post a week or two ago describing differences in the times from round to round in men’s and women’s sprints. Specifically, for the women the qualification round is often the slowest round of the day, while for the men to opposite is often true. This means that comparing women’s qualification times to the men’s will often be comparing the women’s slowest times on that course for the day to the men’s fastest. (Not always, of course, there’s a fare bit of variation from race to race.)

Now, what I found in that previous post was that the median time for the women generally improved by around 5 seconds between qualification and the finals. So the question is, how much of a difference would those five seconds make in comparing the qualification times? Well, if I just artificially subtract five seconds from the best woman’s time, that still would only have put her in the top half of the men’s qualification field once.

As for my own personal feelings, I also think it’s quite silly that the men and women ski different distances. I’d love to see them do the same distances as part of my general desire for FIS to greatly simplify their collection of race formats. It’s may be true that a 50km for women would be a different sort of physiological test than it is for the men, but that’s fine. It’s not like the women’s 30km is really the physiological equivalent of the 50km for men as it is, I think.

Related posts:

  1. Liberec Sprint Recap
  2. Men’s Sprint Heats Tend To Be More Tactical
  3. Recap: Davos Sprint
  4. Week In Review: Friday Jan 14th
  5. Week In Review: Friday Jan 21st

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9 Responses to “Battle Of The Sexes”
  1. Old and even slower today says:

    THat means that the women is closer today than 25-30 years ago, when I used to play the role as the slowest man. Often, in those days, the womens class started earlier than the men, and if you was amongst the earliest men, you would pick up the girls during the first 5km. THe races then was usually ran in laps for 5km, 15km for men and 5km for women. This was races in good or decent company, with some skiers from the national team paticipating (NOR)
    The last stage in Tour de Ski is the only top level race I can think of where the sexes runs the same course and distance. Have you had a look at that extreme race?

    • Joran says:

      It’s funny, I was actually a bit surprised that the gaps were even this big. My preconception before I looked it up was that the top woman would be sort of mid-pack or maybe a bit better. It would be interesting to see whether this difference between men/women is larger or smaller when you move down to less elite competitions. My sense is that the gaps are not this big at lower levels of competition, which actually seems strange to me.

      (Begin wild speculation) I wonder if that could be evidence of wide spread doping in only the elite men’s field; namely that they are much better than the elite women given what you’d expect from the gaps at lower levels of competition.

  2. I’m intensely interested in this topic, both generally (the disparity between men’s and women’s distances) and specifically (Bjørgen seeking yet another distance to dominate). I think that the comparison of men’s and women’s sprinting is less useful than comparisons of long-distance races. One could readily compare the finishing times of the top 10 men and women at the Vasaloppet, Marcialonga, Birkebeiners, or Marathon Cup races – in which everyone races the same course and distance – to see where men and women finish. But finish times, or the winning woman’s percent back from the winning man, isn’t everything here, as Bjørgen is saying: it’s the principle of the thing, and the notion that somehow female XC skiers can’t race the full men’s distances, when in every other analogous sport, men and women race the same distance.

    • Joran says:

      The Loppets are an interesting idea, but having the men/women on the same course at the same time isn’t enough. Since those races are mass starts, the women don’t really have any incentive to ski faster than the fastest woman. So you’ll probably get a lot “mass start” racing that might not reflect the women’s actual ability. Maybe it would, but it would be hard to tell. The best measurement would really be from interval start races on the same course.

      And I’ll reiterate here that my interest in measuring these differences is only because I’m generally interested in playing with data. Whether the men/women are generally faster or slower in any circumstance doesn’t really have anything to do with whether they should race the same distances. (And here’s where people raise tv scheduling or some such, as an issue for why these differences may matter. But I’m not sure that tv deals were such a big deal when these decisions were originally made. In principle I think it’s reasonable nowadays for a tv channel to request that the men’s and women’s events on a single day take roughly the same amount of total time, to aid in scheduling. But the current distance certainly don’t accomplish this; you’d probably need ratios closer to what you see in biathlon, with the women skiing ~75-80% of the men’s distances.)

      • Victor says:

        … and the fastest man would only ski as fast as the fastest man! I would think skiers who are not in the lead have more incentive to ski fast than the leaders, regardless of gender.

        … right or wrong, that thinking would be in line with what been happening in marathon running lately. Worth a look in comparison to sprinting and other distances/events perhaps? I would GUESS there would some differences in the gap…

  3. The last stage of the Tour de Ski doesn’t cover the exact same course until the skiers hit the climb – but of course that would be instructive.

    • Cliff says:

      This year, the men and women were using exactly the same course in the final stage. This has not been the case before.

      • Cloxxki says:

        I am also interested in the TdS final race splits Towards the hill, and covering the hill itself seperately. It basically was an interval race for the leaders, being on their own, with full info of what they should do.


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