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In The Ancestor's Tale, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins makes the following statement about sexual dimorphism:

Our sexual dimporhism is moderate but undeniable. Lots of women are taller than lots of men, but the tallest men are taller than the tallest women. Lots of women can run faster, lift heavier weights, throw javelins further, play better tennis, than lots of men. But for humans, unlike for racehorses, the underlying sexual dimorphism precludes sex-blind open competition at the top level in almost any sport you care to name. In most physical sports, every single one of the world’s top hundred men would beat every single one of the world’s top hundred women.

I wonder if this has been backed up with proper data.

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    Dear visitors to Skeptics.SE. Please don't paste half-baked answers in comments. Please don't express your opinions about the world in comments. Comments are for improving and clarifying the questions and answers. – Oddthinking Dec 27 '18 at 2:25
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    A problem several answers are having is that this claim is wishy-washy. "Most physical sports" gives the impression sports have a clear, countable number of candidates. (Hint: The Olympics is not a list of all sports.) Also, @alephzero's point about team sports. – Oddthinking Dec 27 '18 at 6:18
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    @alephzero The claim covers "every single" male or female and is not intended to make sense for team sports. When you say "team sports", do you mean "mixed team sports"? – Boodysaspie Dec 27 '18 at 13:05
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    Several answers have been deleted for providing cherry-picked anecdotes of particular sports rather than addressing "most sports". – Oddthinking Dec 27 '18 at 23:15
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    @Oddthinking, "physical sports" is a legitimate enough category that Wikipedia maintains a list of them. The context of physical dimorphism also helps (i.e. sports involving physical attributes of the body). That may not be all sports, and many will lack comparable data, since men usually don't compete directly against women. But studies doesn't need to include 100% of humanity to make intelligent conclusions about 100% of humanity. I see no reason why, say, the Olympics wouldn't be a good basis for a non-comprehensive analysis. – Paul Draper Dec 31 '18 at 4:09
199

The Wikipedia List of Olympic records in Athletics page has links to each individual sport, listing the top 25 results by gender. I've compiled the information showing the 25th-best men's result vs. the best women's result. This does not prove the claim (top 100 men vs. top 100 women) but it does give a better feel for the discrepancy between genders in the results.

18 out of the 22 events listed below are directly comparable (events using equipment have lighter or smaller equipment for the women), and in all of those 18 events, the 25th-ranked man's result is better than the top-ranked woman's result by at least 5%:

Sport:              25th-ranked men's result:   top-ranked women's result:
100m                9.87s                       10.49s
200m                19.80s                      21.34s
400m                44.10s                      47.60s
800m                1:42.81                     1:53.28
1500m               3:29.59                     3:50.07
5000m               12:51.00                    14:11.15
10000m              26:49.94                    29:17.45
Marathon            2:04:32                     2:15:25
400m Hurdle         47.67s                      52.34s
3000m Steeplechase  8:04.95                     8:44.32
4x100 Relay         37.58s (*)                  40.82s
4x400 Relay         2:57.87                     3:15.17
20k Walk            1:18:06                     1:23:39
50k Walk            3:36:20 (**)                4:05:56
High Jump           2.38m                       2.09m
Long Jump           8.51m                       7.52m
Pole Vault          5.98m                       5.06m
Triple Jump         17.75m                      15.50m
-- these events use different equipment:
Shot Put (+)        22.08m                      22.63m  (would get 10th place on men's list)
Discus Throw (+)    69.95m                      76.80m  (would get 1st place on men's list)
Hammer Throw (+)    82.54m                      82.98m  (would get 19th place on men's list)
Javelin Throw (+)   89.02m                      72.28m
Decathlon (+)       8663 points                 8358 points

notes:
(*): 20th-place result; lower results not available
(**): 10th-place result; lower results not available
(+): the equipment used is different between men and women. For example, the men's discus weighs 2kg and is 22cm in diameter, while the women's discus weighs 1kg and is 18cm in diameter. The shots, hammers and javelins are also lighter for the women's events. Therefore, these events are not really directly comparable.

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    It would be great to expand this to include non track&field sports where they are quantifiable and comparable... swimming, weight lifting, canoe/kayak, cycling. (Annoyingly, it looks like men's and women's events use different courses for skiing, so it's not a good comparison.) One other thing to note, in the Olympic equestrian events where men and women compete directly, women do make it onto the teams and onto the podium. – user3067860 Dec 26 '18 at 19:26
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    Ultra-marathons: 1st woman ranks 6th in men's list for 100 mile. ultrarunning.com/featured/ultrarunning-magazine-all-time-lists. For 3100 miles: 1st woman ranks 2nd in men's list. For 1000 mile, 1st woman ranks 7th in men's list. – Chloe Dec 26 '18 at 19:40
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    @SebastiaanvandenBroek because the lists on Wikipedia only went to 25th place. – Hellion Dec 27 '18 at 5:19
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    @Chloe - it is of note that this is almost certainly due to very low competitiveness of ultramarathons (7% difference between #1 and #10). – Davor Dec 27 '18 at 12:24
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    I would argue Decathlon is not really directly comparable as well, as the men and women use different scoring tables, contains the various throwing events with different equipment weights as mentioned in answer, has 110m hurdles for men and 100m hurdles for women, and (less importantly) the decathlon has primarily been replaced by the heptathlon for the top tier of women, as the women's heptathlon is the combined athletics event at the Olympics and other top meets instead of the decathlon. – Jimmy M. Dec 27 '18 at 15:36
170

On the evidence of the IAAF, the 100th best male athlete is significantly faster and/or stronger than a female. Here are a few examples:

Event     100th Man  1st Woman   Eq male rank
100m          10.15      10.85        3,460th
1500m       3:38.28    3:56.68      > 3,143th (a)
Marathon    2:08:46    2:18:11          797th
High Jump      2.23       2.04        1,085th
Long Jump      7.91       7.05        1,898th
Javelin       77.27      68.92          437th (b)

Note (a): There are only 3,143 entries for the men's 1500m, the slowest being 3:56.00 seconds. (b) The men's javelin is longer and 33% heavier.

The World Swimming Rankings tell a similar story, but also give one example of an exception. Katie Ledecky's time for the 1500m Freestyle ranks her 72nd among the men. She is clearly an outstanding swimmer, as she is 31 seconds, or one full length, faster than her nearest female rival. She also competes in the 400m and 800m, where she is outside the top 100 men and her times are closer to other women's.

Given that men are more athletic at athletics, they should have the same advantage in team games such as football or rugby, but direct competitions, and therefore comparisons, aren't available.

However, this article has some revealing opinions from champions of both sexes into men's vs. women's tennis.

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    @Richard Yes, a female athlete from a country with a strong culture of sprinting can beat a man from Tuvalu or Kiribati, if he's qualifying and she's sprinting at a final pace. Her qualifying times would not have been successful in any male heat, her semifinal time was too slow to qualify for the men's final and her final time would have left her embarrassingly last against the men. – Boodysaspie Dec 26 '18 at 22:49
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    @Richard You're making the assumption that the people present were the top 100 people, which is almost certainly false. A tiny island nation is very unlikely to have one of the top 100, while very large nations (especially highly-developed ones) may have many of the top 100 people, even though only a few of them could participate in the Olympics. – reirab Dec 26 '18 at 23:19
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    @Richard There were 22 sprinters in the Men's preliminary heat and the fastest time was 10.43. That likely wouldn't have qualified the sprinter in the top 100 for last years US College Track & Field season (#1 was 9.93, #25 was 10.14). The preliminaries weren't for top 100 sprinters, they were for tiny countries who didn't have world class sprinters. The women's preliminaries only had two sprinters break 12 seconds. Seven couldn't break 13 seconds, three of which couldn't break 14 seconds. – SafeFastExpressive Dec 27 '18 at 0:53
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    @Richard Don't forget the Olympics places restrictions on number of athletes per country. If Country A has the top 100 sprinters in the world, they can still only send 3 sprinters. Whoever placed 4th at the Olympics therefore would probably still only be the 101st fastest sprinter worldwide in such an example. – Jimmy M. Dec 27 '18 at 15:43
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    @Richard, this data appears to actually support the claim made by Dawkins. All 62 of the men who met the qualifying standard for the event ran faster than the winner from the women's field. As others have pointed out, the 22 prelim runners are likely not actually in the top 100 while some of the "true" top 100 did qualify for the Olympics because they were behind faster runners from their home country. All 33 men beat the women's world record at the US qualifying event, but only 3 went to the Olympics tfrrs.org/results/46783/2887543/2016_U.S._Olympic_Trials/… – Mark Peterson Dec 27 '18 at 15:44
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Extremes

In the fuller quote, Dawkins seems to be talking about extremes, "Lots of women are taller than lots of men, but the tallest men are taller than the tallest women." He also uses the example of racehorses, which don't compete in a team sport, but rather against each other to see which can run the fastest. Finally with "most physical sports" and "the top level in almost any sport," that's almost the literal definition of the Olympics, which Britannica.com says "[t]he Olympic Games have come to be regarded as the world’s foremost sports competition."

Therefore it makes sense to look at the extreme performance records of the Olympic games, specifically events where running times & jumping distances are easiest to compare. Not just the current athletes, but the all time records to really find the best extreme performers.

Comparing the very top record performers would show the very extremes of performance, as Dawkings was at least partially talking about. Here's the Olympic events & their all time records from Wikipedia's List of Olympic records in athletics, I'll try formatting them by sport, with the mens & women's records side-by-side for easier comparison:

                              Records
Event                   Men's       Women's
=====                   =====       =======
100m                    9.63        10.62
200 metres              19.30       ♦21.34
400 metres              ♦43.03      48.25
800 metres              ♦1:40.91    1:53.43
1,500 metres            3:32.07     3:53.96
5,000 metres            12:57.82    14:26.17
10,000 metres           27:01.17    ♦29:17.45
Marathon                2:06:32     2:23:07
110 metres hurdles      12.91       12.35
 * only 100m hurdles for women
400 metres hurdles      ♦46.78      52.64
3,000 m steeplechase    8:03.28     8:58.81
4×100 m relay           ♦36.84      ♦40.82
4×400 m relay           2:55.39     ♦3:15.17
20 km walk              1:18:46     1:25:02
High jump               2.39 m      2.06 m
Long jump               8.90 m      7.40 m
Pole vault              6.03 m      5.05 m
Triple jump             18.09 m     15.39 m
(♦ denotes a performance that is also a current world record.
 Statistics are correct as of 19 August 2016.)

The following events differ in the weight of the item thrown so aren't directly comparable, but given the drastic difference in weight of the items (usually half as heavy for women) yet still similar records, it seems worthy of inclusion:

Shot put                22.52 m     22.41 m
 * men's shot weighs 16 lb, women's 8.8 lb
Discus throw            69.89 m     72.30 m
 * men's weigh 2kg/4.4 lb, women's 1kg/2.2 lb
Hammer throw            84.80 m     82.29 m
 * men's weigh 16 lb, women's 8.82 lb
Javelin throw           90.57 m     71.53 m
 * men's weigh 800g/1.76 lb, women's 600g/1.32 lb

It appears that the men's records are quicker/faster/further for everything except the incomparable item throwing events. This strongly supports Dawkins' statement.

What about the next 99 athletes?

I would ask Dawkins why he chose the seemingly arbitrary number of the top 100 men & women, it could've been with the idea that there are only a few extreme performers, but the Olympic records seem to indicate that there's not only a dozen or even a hundred, but thousands of very closely performing athletes.

Looking specifically at the (arbitrary) 100th best vs the very best, using the IAAF source for Wikipedia, similar to Boodysaspie's good answer but not just looking at current athletes but all time records (or at least since electronic timing ) and not just the Olympics, gives results with usually far more than 100 men's records faster than the fastest woman, so it looks like Dawkins' statement holds water:

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    is the 4x100m and 4x400m the total time or the idividual times? – Jungkook Jan 3 at 12:52
  • 4x 100 - 400 are a bit special as it's mainly people of the same nationality. and only a few team per country. But there is mathematically 8x10^12 possible team better for 4x100 based on the "1686 male athletes with times faster than the women's record (they are 10.30s or faster)". – xdtTransform Jan 3 at 13:30
  • @Jungkook The 4 x 100m is a relay race, run in lanes over one lap of the track with four runners completing 100 metres each. A relay baton is carried by each runner. The time is for the entire race. – Xen2050 Jan 4 at 8:12
  • @Xen2050 so the records belong to 73*4 and 87*4 men? – Jungkook Jan 4 at 8:32
  • @Jungkook Approximately... 73 & 87 teams of 4 men per team. I think the teams are unique, but some members were in multiple teams (like the 2015 US & 2013 US Red teams share two members) – Xen2050 Jan 4 at 9:04
1

While the statement is generally true today, as other answers have explained in detail, it isn't certain that it will always hold true in all physically demanding sports.

Of courses it is difficult to say "never", but there is some evidence that women may eventually match or even exceed men's performance in certain endurance sports such as ultra-marathons. There are various theories for why this may be, but the main issue today is that women's sport science is less developed than men's and while recent improvements have been fairly rapid it is hard to predict how far it will ultimately go.

To be clear the statement is generally true (see other answers) and is unlikely to change in the near future, if ever. However, it's not a completely done deal yet either.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Without wishing to be picky, the statement is generally true, as you say in your first paragraph. But by definition, the statement is not absolutely true, like you say in your final one. The other answers prove precisely this. – bornfromanegg Jan 2 at 15:23
  • Good point, poor choice of words. – dont_shog_me_bro Jan 2 at 15:31
-3

The question can not be honestly answered as it is stated remarkably imprecise ( in more than two instances ).

Success in "sport" disciplines depend on sportive qualities that are distinct from each other ranging from fast strategic thinking (chess) over teamwork (i.e. climbing, ice-stick shooting, curling and alike team sports) to athletic capabilities.

While many of these qualities are not tangled to sex, muscular strength, fast power and endurance performance are.
There are physiological differences in muscular composition between males and females in homo sapiens that are rooted in sex driven hormonal differences that beside direct impact interact in various ways with growth and motoric ability. Some of these sex differences might be overcome by hormonal substitution combined with training at least in young fit individuals (this is because the bone composition / tendonous apparatus needs to adapt to muscular strength and the timeframe for bone composition change is early in lifespan).

Therefore only in "sports" that depend foremost on power of the muscular skeletal system in a challenge of comparable conditioned man and women, the males are unlikely to be beaten even by exceptional strong females i.e. olympic weightlifting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_weightlifting)

Some selective literature:

Sex-Based Differences in Skeletal Muscle Kinetics and Fiber-Type Composition K. M. Haizlip, B. C. Harrison, L. A. Leinwand Physiology (Bethesda) 2015 Jan; 30(1): 30–39. doi: 10.1152/physiol.00024.2014 PMCID: PMC4285578

The exercise sex gap and the impact of the estrous cycle on exercise performance in mice Aderbal S. Aguiar, Jr, Ana Elisa Speck, Inês M. Amaral, Paula M. Canas, Rodrigo A. Cunha Sci Rep. 2018; 8: 10742. Published online 2018 Jul 16. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-29050-0 PMCID: PMC6048134

Sex-Related Differences in Muscle Composition and Motor Unit Firing Rates of the First Dorsal Interosseous: 114 Board; Wray, Mandy & Sterczala, Adam & Miller, Jonathan & L. Dimmick, Hannah & Herda, Trent. (2018) #3 May 30 9. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 50. 8. 10.1249/01.mss.0000535111.46582.39.

Sex-Related Differences in Gene Expression in Human Skeletal Muscle Stephen Welle, Rabi Tawil, Charles A. Thornton PLoS One. 2008; 3(1): e1385. Published online 2008 Jan 2. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001385

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    -1: The quote is about sexual dimorphism in humans and how it compares to other animals. The first two (three?) articles are based on non-human animal models. So they don't support your answer. I agree that the claim is imprecise, but I don't think you've shown that. – Oddthinking Dec 27 '18 at 2:21
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    -1 "Some of these sex differences might be overcome by hormonal substitution" So you're saying that to get over the differences of men and women, partially turn the women into men? You seem to be missing the point. – UKMonkey Dec 27 '18 at 17:05
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    Prof Dawkins doesn't mention chess-style intellect, nor team sports per se. He makes the claim that men are more athletic ("physical sports") because of evolution. You seem to be criticising the question with exactly the same claim. – Boodysaspie Dec 28 '18 at 23:47
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    @ABri: No, the onus of proof is with you here: You say that the mice model is applicable to humans in this case. [I hastily agree that animal models are often useful, but this claim is particularly about how humans are different to some other mammals, so citing another mammal doesn't help - otherwise we could cite racehorses as a disproof.] – Oddthinking Dec 29 '18 at 13:33
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    @ABri correct - gender isn't based on hormones, but you'll find that the hormones are based on gender. – UKMonkey Dec 31 '18 at 11:08

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