Can women be physically stronger than men?

Stronger than men? The limits of the female body

After the success of the Chinese swimmer, experts are puzzling how Ye Shiwen could be faster than the fastest man. One expert explains that women are less disadvantaged when it comes to swimming.

It may be? Can it be? A young woman was faster than the fastest man. The route that Ye Shiwen swam more confidently than Lochte or Phelps is "only" the last 50 meters of the 400-meter medley discipline. But at least it took 0.17 seconds from US winner Ryan Lochte and 0.8 seconds from superstar Michael Phelps.

Questions about doping were raised in the first reports that were sent out after this success (also because Chinese swimmers were convicted of doping in rows around 20 years ago). But Ye commented dryly: “We train very well, on a very scientific basis, that's why we've improved so much.” The “Presse am Sonntag” asked the first female professor for gender medicine whether it is biologically possible for a woman swims faster than the fastest men.

“It's a big exception, but in principle it's possible. But I think it's bad that when a woman performs so well, people immediately call out that it has to be doping, gene doping or some other faked story, ”says Alexandra Kautzky-Willer from Med-Uni Vienna .

If a man like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps outperforms the others at the last Summer Olympics, that is less of an issue. "History shows that many more men are convicted of doping than women," adds Kautzky-Willer.

The World Swimming Federation also protested this week against Ye Shiwen's suspicion of doping: she was tested four times, all results were negative. "But it is the case in our society that top performance by women is more difficult to accept than that of men, whether in sport, in business or in other areas," says Kautzky-Willer.

Oxygen. Her specialty is to clarify the differences between men and women on a scientific basis: Gender medicine wants to make a healthier life possible for everyone by finding the most suitable treatment for everyone.

“A biological difference that becomes important in sport is the oxygen supply to the body, especially to the muscles. And the way the muscles contract and build strength, ”says Kautzky-Willer. Men have bigger hearts than women, more blood is pumped through per heartbeat and per minute, and there is more hemoglobin in the blood, which is important for oxygen transport.

In addition, men have, on average, a larger lung volume than women, who, on the other hand, breathe more often per minute - and also have a higher heart rate than men. "The oxygen uptake capacity is higher in men, they also have more bone mass and more muscle mass."

In addition, there is the different ratio of body fat (the percentage of fat in women is around 28 percent, in men 18 percent) and the different physique (torso-emphasized in women, extremity-emphasized in men).

Not to forget: the different hormone levels. The male testosterone has an anabolic effect that promotes muscle building. In women, athletic performance and trainability fluctuates with the cycle: In the first half of the cycle, the estrogens have a strong anabolic effect, which is good for building muscle. But in the second half of the cycle, performance drops. "But many of the women in extreme top-class sport do not have a normal menstrual cycle at all - due to the changed hormone balance during excessive training," explains Kautzky-Willer.

The “gender gap”. In any case, all of these factors explain the famous “gender gap”: the difference in performance between men and women in almost all sporting disciplines. A French study from 2010 compared the best performances of the Olympians since records began: the women were always “worse” (slower, less far, less strong, etc.) than the men.

“In the very early years there was still a strong increase in top performance, both for men and women,” says Kautzky-Willer. "However, women only got into Olympic sport late: Their training conditions were worse and yet they were able to quickly reduce the enormous gender gap‘ that initially existed. "

The difference in top performance between men and women narrowed until around the 1990s, and since then the “gender gap” has leveled out at an average of ten percent. "Even today, women often have poorer training resources and earn less, but this ten percent is probably due to differences in biology," says Kautzky-Willer.

“But you have to look carefully, because the 'gender gap' varies in size in different disciplines: in sprint and jump disciplines up to 20 percent. Because women have a lower center of gravity - thanks to their stronger pelvis. ”That explains why the world record in the long jump for men (8.95 meters) is 19 percent higher than that for women (7.52 meters) and is the best in the pole vault Man is 21 percent higher (6.14 meters) than the world's best woman (5.06 meters).

In the swimming pool, on the other hand, the biological differences are less serious: "Women have a very streamlined body and, thanks to the higher fat percentage and lower weight, more buoyancy," says Kautzky-Willer. In addition, the fatty tissue protects against great heat loss in cold water: This is why the gender gap in the swimming disciplines is reduced to six to ten percent.

Unique Ye Shiwen. Ye Shiwen's new record in the 400-meter medley is 4: 28.43 minutes, only 8.7 percent behind Ryan Lochte's win time of 4: 05.12 minutes. In the 2010 analysis, women came closest to men in the 800-meter freestyle: only six percent gender gap. "Even in speed skating and cycling, the physical difference is not as pronounced as in running or jumping disciplines," says Kautzky-Willer. She followed the hype about Ye Shiwen out of personal interest and sees another reason why this young woman stands out: “Ye is 16 years old, that is exactly the point in time when women reach the maximum of their oxygen uptake capacity. For men this is later, around the age of 18. "

The stature (very tall, slim) speaks for the young Chinese woman. "Since she also has very large hands, which were supposed to be conspicuous as a child, it was immediately suspected that higher growth hormone levels could be involved," says the expert. "But then various other physical changes would also occur, her chin would be more dominant, her facial features coarse." Even after an excess of male hormones, Ye does not look, she has neither severe acne nor does she look boyish. But the young sportswoman will also endure these examinations until there is proof that everything was right here.

In any case, the gender doctor emphasizes that the differences between men and women in top-class sport are much smaller than in hobby sport: "Because in everyday life there are mental factors, traditional role models also influence performance." to their limits and are competitive - with less fear of failure.

Women tend to do sports to regulate their weight, to keep their bodies in shape, for beauty claims or for health's sake. The fighting spirit to compete with the best is part of the male role model in everyday life. "These stereotypes disappear in top-class sport, everyone is interested in winning and so the biological factors are clearly more visible," says Kautzky-Willer.

Traditional role models. It is also exciting that in the only Olympic discipline in which men and women compete individually, namely riding, a gender difference can also be recognized: “In dressage riding, where the artistic and aesthetic is more important, are among the top placements more and more women. ”However, when it comes to show jumping, where it is more or less about“ higher, faster, further ”, men are again dominant.

When asked whether her observations of the differences between men and women are directed against the women's movement, Kautzky-Willer has to smile. “I also see myself as a feminist. But as a scientist, I am looking for the truth. And the biological prerequisites cannot be denied. "

In addition to the basic genetic makeup, the activity of the genes also plays an important role: It is controlled by environmental factors (epigenetics): Lifestyle, training and psychosocial factors affect the body and cells and make us women and men different beings. “Of course we are all the same: in the sense of equal. We need the same rights, the same access to education and should be treated equally well in every way. "



Women are on average ten to 15 centimeters shorter and ten to 20 kilograms lighter than men. The body structure of women is trunk-accentuated, in men the extremities are emphasized. Men have bigger hearts, bigger lungs, and more hemoglobin, so muscles get better oxygenated and physical performance is higher. Women have a higher percentage of body fat (28 percent) than men (18 percent) and a lower percentage of muscle (36 and 42 percent, respectively).

The gray cells

The brains too of men and women differ significantly. In men, the brain is on average eleven percent larger; it contains more “gray matter” in certain areas such as the cerebellum. Some areas of the brain are larger in women, such as the frontal lobes. In women, the limbic system is more active - it is mainly emotions that are processed there; in men, the prefrontal cortex, which is important for rational thinking, is more active. And: In women, more brain structures are activated than in men - so they process more information, and this more comprehensively and in more detail.

The biochemistry

The metabolism works differently in the two sexes: All implementation processes in the body are, as we have only recently known, regulated completely differently. In addition, the sex hormones have many effects on the body, mind and behavior. One of the consequences: many drugs work differently for men than they do for women.

How to give yourself

Also in behavior there are numerous differences. Even in kindergarten, women are less likely to face a competitive situation, men are more willing to take risks and are much more likely to overestimate their productivity. On the one hand, genetic and hormonal factors play a role, but social and cultural influences such as role models are at least as important.

Consequences in everyday life

In the traditional male world women are often discriminated against because of these differences. So are about
Car seats are currently designed so that men are half as likely to be injured as women in a rear-end collision. In medicine, too, the difference is sometimes not sufficiently taken into account: For some diseases, e.g. heart attacks, women show completely different symptoms than men - in practice, the cause is therefore often not correctly identified. ku / vers

("Die Presse", print edition, August 5th, 2012)