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What If Men And Women Skied Against Each Other In The Olympics?

Last fall, Lindsey Vonn, a gold-medal Olympian and the second winningest World Cup skier of all time,1 repeated a request she’d made before: to race against men. U.S. Ski & Snowboard made a formal petition on her behalf to the International Ski Federation (FIS), which currently does not allow mixed-gender competitions.2 The FIS won’t rule on the petition until spring at the earliest, so as Vonn competes in Pyeongchang this weekend, she won’t know if she will ever get a chance to race against her male peers.3

Vonn’s quest made us wonder: What would the Olympics look like if men and women skied against each other? We got results for four Alpine events in the Winter Olympics4 going back to 1948 and looked at the median speed5 for competitors in the men’s and women’s events in each year.6

In slalom, giant slalom and the super-G, women’s and men’s performances seem to vary in comparison to each other. However, in downhill, the event that most emphasizes speed rather than making turns, the men consistently run ahead of the women — though female downhill skiers today are faster in general than the men who competed in the late 1970s and earlier.

But these comparisons hide a key difference between the men’s and women’s competitions: namely, the courses themselves. Men and women rarely race on the same courses, which are set according to different guidelines, with men’s courses requiring a greater change in elevation. Courses also vary in their steepness, but there has not been a marked difference in the average gradient of men’s and women’s courses. This means that men’s courses, which tend to have the same gradient as women’s but a greater vertical change, are usually longer than women’s. In other Winter Olympic sports where events are defined by their lengths, such as cross-country skiing and biathlon, the women’s races are also almost always significantly shorter.7

So here’s another question: Is there any reason for women’s Alpine courses to be shorter? For example, do women go faster on shorter courses, either relative to themselves or to men? (Though that in itself would not be a reason that women’s courses had to be shorter but might give some explanation as to why they are.) To investigate, we plotted average speed versus course length for the winning female competitor in each event for every year.

As women have gotten faster, they have also been racing longer distances. It seems that distance is not a limiting factor for female skiers. And yet, while the range of women’s speeds is comparable to that of men’s — and even in some events, such as super-G, women have the fastest average speeds in our dataset — in no event have women raced on the longest courses (though in many cases they raced the same distance or greater than men did in other Olympic years).

Apart from any questions of inequality, this feature of Alpine skiing makes comparing men’s and women’s performances very difficult. Distance may, in fact, affect average speeds, and requiring separate courses also means that other factors, like gate placement and steepness, will be different for men’s and women’s races.

The separation of genders in Alpine skiing, combined with the fact that women are usually asked to do less than men, implies that if men and women were in head-to-head competition, women would never have a shot at gold.8 But we simply don’t know for sure if that is true — with all the differences between men’s and women’s races, the data can’t really tell us. Vonn herself has expressed doubts about how she would perform directly against men, telling the Denver Post, “I know I’m not going to win.”

“But,” she said, “I would like to at least have the opportunity to try.”

Footnotes

  1. She has 81 wins, only five behind male Swedish skier Ingemar Stenmark, who retired in 1989.

  2. There are team events in Alpine skiing that have mixed-gender teams, one of which will be featured in the Pyeongchang Olympics for the first time. But in those events, women are still racing in heats against women and men against men.

  3. Even if the FIS were to approve the petition, it probably would not permanently change the rules regarding mixed-gender racing. Rather, it is likely to make a one-time exception for Vonn to race in the men’s World Cup race in November 2018.

  4. Excluding combined and team events.

  5. We used median speed rather than an average of the field because competitors who did much worse than the field each year had too big an impact on the average.

  6. Because Alpine courses are not specific lengths (they follow general guidelines), we needed to know how long each course was so that we could compare speeds from different races, rather than just race times. The results came from Sports-Reference.com, and the course information is from Wikipedia. Neither dataset was complete, so races in which we are missing either times or course lengths are excluded.

  7. Curiously, the same is not true for most analogous Summer Olympic events, such as track and field races.

  8. Atle Skaardal, race director of the women’s World Cup, has maintained that keeping genders separate has nothing to do with relative performance, saying, “For me it’s a meaningless comparison. It doesn’t matter if she’s one second behind or a half-second ahead. We compete female against female and men against men. To me it doesn’t matter if one gender is faster or slower. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, just because it’s of interest to one racer.”

Ella Koeze is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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