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Earlier this week, @barfly wrote a post reporting on the rules adopted by the international governing authority in swimming, FINA, on so-called transgender athletes. Specifically, the rules addressed the issue of biologically male swimmers who wished to engage in so-called transition, and then compete as females.
Barfly’s post includes the specific text of the rule, the essence of which is to prohibit anyone from competing in swimming as a woman if he has “experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.” There is also a requirement for demonstrating the continued maintenance of a low testosterone level.
I did some digging into the differences between boys and girls in swimming performance. Specifically, I looked at the male and female national age group records in swimming, for five age categories: 10 and under, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, and 17-18. Depending on the age group, there are between 12 and 18 events with official national records. I have a particular interest in swimming, as I was a competitive swimmer as a kid, through high school.
For this analysis, I looked at records in short course yards (i.e. swimming in a 25-yard pool), rather than long course meters, principally due to my recollection and impression that American kids usually compete in short course yards. This is true in most summer swimming, high school swimming, and even NCAA swimming.
My methodology was to compare the national record for males and females, for each event. The time differential varied widely, because events ranged from the 50-yard sprints to the 1,650-yard distance freestyle. I normalized the difference for each event by converting it to the difference per 100 yards.
Remember that this is not a comparison of typical American boys and girls in swimming. It is a comparison of the very best boy, and the very best girl, that we’ve had in each event. There are a total of 72 event records for boys, and another 72 for girls, for these five age groups.
Of those 72 events, the female record is faster than the male record in two (2). By age category, it breaks down as follows:
- 10 and under: The male record is faster in 10 of 12 events
- 11-12: The male record is faster in all 18 events
- 13-14, 15-16, 17-18: The male record is faster in all 14 events
My calculations allowed me to quantify the average difference in the male and female records, normalized to the difference per 100 yards of the event. Here are the results:
- 10 and under: The male records averaged 0.57 seconds faster per 100 yards
- 11-12: The male records averaged 3.01 seconds faster per 100 yards
- 13-14: The male records averaged 4.53 seconds faster per 10o yards
- 15-16: The male records averaged 4.45 seconds faster per 100 yards
- 17-18: The male records averaged 4.71 seconds faster per 100 yards
This indicates that, at least in swimming, there is only a small male advantage, if any, prior to age 11. By age 12, most of the male-female difference has appeared, averaging about 3 seconds per 100 yards. By age 14, and thereafter, the male-female difference is about 4.5 seconds per 100 yards.
I did this analysis for my own information, but thought that some of you might find it interesting.
If anything, it suggests that the FINA rule doesn’t go quite far enough by establishing a cutoff for male athletes engaging in so-called “transition,” as the FINA rule provides a safe harbor permitting such athletes to compete as females provided that they “transitioned” by age 12 (or later, depending on the timing of a particular athlete’s “Tanner Stage 2”). As you can see from my analysis, about two-thirds of the eventual male-female differential in the performance of top swimmers emerges by the age of 12.Published in