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Sex and gender differences in sport and exercise

This is an excerpt from Physiology of Sport and Exercise 7th Edition With Web Study Guide-Loose-Leaf Edition by W. Larry Kenney,Jack Wilmore & David Costill.

In the past, it was not uncommon for young girls to be discouraged from participating in vigorous physical activity, while young boys climbed trees, raced against each other, and participated in various sports. The underlying notion was that boys were meant to be active and athletic but girls were less suited to physical activity and competition. Physical education classes furthered this idea by having girls perform nonstrenuous exercise activities. In sports, girls and women were not allowed to run in long-distance races, and basketball was limited to half-court, with each team having only offensive or defensive players.

With the advent of Title IX, athletic activities and programming must be equally accessible to girls and women, and the results have been amazing. Their athletic accomplishments parallel those of boys and men, with performance differences of 15%-17% or less for most sports and events. This is illustrated in table 19.1, where men's and women's world records are compared for representative events in both track and field and swimming. Do these performance differences represent true biological differences, or are there other factors involved? The focus of this chapter is on the extent to which biological differences between women and men affect performance capacity.

Table 19.1

Sex Versus Gender in Exercise Physiology

The literature examining physiological differences between men and women refers to these comparisons as sex differences or gender differences, with the terms often used interchangeably. The dual terminology can cause confusion with regard to literature searches, data reporting, and interpretation of results, leading researchers to consider whether there is a distinction between the two terms and when each should be used.

With respect to research on male and female physiology, sex and gender are not synonyms. Rather, sex is biologically determined and gender is culturally determined.25 In other words, the term sex refers to the physiological, genetic, and biological traits that define a human as being male or female. Gender, by contrast, is the social, cultural, and psychological influences that construe an individual's self-representation as male or female. For example, it is possible for one to have the structural and functional characteristics of a man but to identify and live as a woman, and possibly to have undergone surgical transformation to associate with the female gender. Consequently, most basic physiological comparisons to date between men and women have established sex differences, unless the investigation was specifically targeted at physiological outcomes associated with one or more of the cultural, social, behavioral, or psychological influences of different gender states. Although this seems to be a theoretical concept, real-life applications are observed in research and competitive sport.

For example, in 2011, the Internal Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) devised a new policy in response to the case of Caster Semenya, a South African female runner who won the 800 m race at the 2009 Berlin World Championships. Semenya was criticized for her masculine build and forced to undergo sex testing that revealed unusually high levels of testosterone (a condition known as hyperandrogenism). The IAAF policy on hyperandrogenism thus states that women who are suspected of being too masculine must undergo testing and treatment in order to remain eligible for competition. This policy has been criticized on many points, among them that the development of the policy was confused and confounded by lack of distinction between sex and gender, as well as the difficulty of distinguishing easily between the two for the sake of competitive eligibility.16

Why the reluctance to use the term sex differences in modern-day physiology? It may be that the term gender avoids the innuendo associated with the term sex, and therefore seems less suggestive, more polite, or politically correct. In addition, even the concept of sex itself is not as dichotomous as one might wish, since genetic determinants of sex and biological structure and function can be discrepant so as to create a spectrum of male or female traits known as intersex characteristics in the same individual. In any case, though, referring to comparisons of the basic biological and physiological male and female attributes as sex differences establishes in the literature a basis for better classifying and interpreting research studies.