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Women tracking men in the 100 metre sprint

Published: 
30 September 2004

Female athletes have been catching up with men in the race to become the fastest human on the planet. But they may have to wait another 150 years before they finally overtake them, scientists believe.

Professor Peter Atkinson from the University of Southampton has been working on this ground-breaking study with colleagues from the University of Oxford and the KEMRI/Wellcome Trust research unit in Kenya.

Researchers estimate, if current trends continue, women sprinters will be the track torch bearers at the 2156 Olympics, covering the 100 metres in 8.079 seconds, leaving the men in second place at 8.098.

By plotting winning times of Olympic 100 metre finals over the past century, scientists argue that sprinting achievement may not have reached a plateau and that records could continue to be broken.

And the mathematical formula reveals that women could be crossing the finishing line first at any time between the 2064 and 2788 Olympics. But the most likely will be the 2156 Games.

The study, which features in this week's edition of Nature, (30 September) was led by Dr Andy Tatem, from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, who worked on the assumption that athletes were drug-free and conditions were as suitable as possible. Aided by Professor Peter Atkinson, of the School of Geography at the University of Southampton, Carlos Guerra from Oxford and Simon Hay from the KEMRI/Wellcome Trust research unit in Kenya, Olympic winning times for men starting from the beginning of the 20th century were logged.

At the first women's 100 metres Olympics event, staged in 1928 in Amsterdam, the winning time was 12.2 seconds compared to the men's 10.8 - a 1.4 seconds difference.

By 1952 the margin had decreased to 1.1 seconds with the men hitting the tape at 10.4 and the women 11.5.

In four of the five Olympics between 1988 and 2000 the difference was under one second. But in Athens this summer, when Belarussian Yuliya Nesterenko took the title at 10.93 and American Justin Gatlin won in 9.85, the gap widened to 1.08 seconds.

However, if overall trends continue, the calculations suggest by the next Olympics (2008) the women's 100-metre race could be won in 10.57 seconds and the men's in 9.73.

The world 100 metre records are currently held by Tim Montgomery - 9.78 seconds - and Florence Griffith-Joyner - 10.49.

Professor Peter Atkinson from the University of Southampton said, "The data show that women's times for the 100m sprint are falling at a more rapid rate than men's times. By fitting curves to the data we have been able to show that, if current trends continue, female athletes will run faster than male athletes in the 2156 Olympics.

"There is no denying that women are closing the gap on men. The trends over the last 100 years or so show no sign of tailing off, so women are currently set to run faster than men in 152 years time.

"Of course, there is uncertainty about this prediction, and our analysis has taken that into account. Interestingly, there is a small chance that women might run faster than men within 60 years.

"It will be fascinating to see how women and men fare in Beijing in four years time. Who knows what will happen in the future?"

Dr Tatem said, "People often argue that athletes have reached their limits but in this study at least, that doesn't seem to be the case. However we have no idea how low times for the 100 metres could go.

"We have to assume that athletes in the future will be drug-free but who is to say what the rules will be in 2156? It was once considered ungentlemanly to even train for athletic events, so who knows what will happen."

Related Staff Member

Notes for editors

  1. The Wellcome Trust is an independent research-funding charity established in 1936 under the will of tropical medicine pioneer Sir Henry Wellcome. The Trust's mission is to promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health and it currently spends more than £400m p.a.
  2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has over 19,200 students and 4,800 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £250 million.

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