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.