Comment: Just because a woman performs better than a man doesn't mean she's on drugs

Tim Woodhouse on women, the Olympics and sport.
Tim Woodhouse on women, the Olympics and sport.

By Tim Woodhouse

Ye Shiwen’s performance to win gold in the Olympic 400 Medley was incredible. It was sport at its finest. Unpredictable, awe-inspiring and record breaking.

A few hours later it emerged that it was even more remarkable than first thought, as people realised that she had completed the last 50 metres in a faster time than Ryan Lochte had in the men’s event the evening before.

It was at that point the questions started to be asked. Who was she? Where had she come from? 'She swam faster than a man…she must be on drugs' seemed to be the most commonly held assumption. The American swim coach John Leonard called it "disturbing" and "suspicious".

Interestingly, 15-year-old Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte, who won the Women's 100 metres breaststroke the next day, didn't face similar accusations despite again coming from relatively nowhere, smashing her personal best and snatching gold away from much more experienced athletes. Does the fact that she trains in Plymouth as part of a respected club explain this lack of suspicion? Probably.

Chinese swimmers do have previous form in this area, and were found to have been guilty of a series of doping offences in the 1990's, so perhaps it's natural that some have raised the possibility of drugs, but it is the comparison with Ryan Lochte's time which makes this case really interesting. The fact that she went faster than one of the world's best male swimmers is conclusive proof for some that she must be on drugs. Why should that be?

There is an assumption that men will be faster and stronger in every sport, but that isn't always the case. In this week's strength-sapping Olympic three day eventing competition, where men and women compete with and against each other, seven of the top ten were women, including both silver and bronze medallists. And in endurance events such as marathons and ironman triathlons women like Paula Radcliffe and Chrissie Wellington regularly beat many of the male competitors.

However there is probably a more innocent and less sensational explanation for Shiwen's performance – she was fighting for gold in an Olympic final while Lochte was coasting home with his win already assured.

Does this mean then that sportswomen have been denied the opportunity to claim that they are closing the gap on the men?
Thankfully yes. Women's sport doesn't need to be compared to men's sport to make it appealing to spectators or sponsors. Levels of interest in women's sport have never been higher (61% of male and female sports fans want to see more of it on TV) and it is appreciated because of its own brand of skill and excitement (WSFF Prime Time 2010) rather than because it imitates men's sport.

Companies too are increasingly recognising women's sport as being excellent vehicles for commercial partnerships. Investec's record sponsorship of women's hockey is a very good example – a company is prepared to invest over £2 million (WSFF Big Deal 2011) into a women’s sport, not because they think the women are a better team than the men, but because they see genuine commercial value in associating themselves with a quality product admired and played by many women and girls across the country. 

So the fans are demanding more women's sport, commercial sponsors are starting to take advantage of the potential, but it is fair to say that the media is slower to catch on. In non-Olympic years women's sport accounts for less than five per cent of sports media output. Through our Go Girl campaign we are demonstrating that the public are demanding the proportion increases.

As I write this 70,000 people are heading to Wembley to watch the GB women take on Brazil in one of the biggest women's football matches in history. They know that they won't be seeing Beckham, Gerrard or Rooney. And I imagine they are quite glad about that.

Tim Woodhouse is head of policy at Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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