Thanks to a combination of Lady Gaga lyrics, deodorant strong enough for men but made just for us, and pole dancing classes, women are now more equal with men than ever. We're out-enrolling men in college, we're installing tampon machines in executive suite bathrooms, and we still enjoy a commanding lead in the overall "Who Has Made The Most Human Life Inside Their Bodies?" race. The gender gap is even narrowing in the arena of athletic achievement — if current trends continue, within the next century, female Olympians will be just as fast as their male counterparts. But as the gap narrows, women breaking barriers and challenging men will have to make sure they look like girls while doing it — or face a series of tests to make sure they're really, authentically ladies.
Since women were first allowed to compete in the Olympics in 1900, men have consistently been faster and stronger than their female counterparts. But, as The Atlantic charts, that gap has narrowed as women have had more opportunity to train, and as athletic participation among ladies has become more commonplace and less something to be avoided on the grounds that according to a popular school of thought, it would make a lady's uterus fall out. In the 1910's, it took the world's fastest woman almost 13 seconds to run 100 meters; men were doing it in around 10.5. By 1988, when Florence Griffith-Joyner set the women's 100 meter world record in 10.49 seconds, men had only improved to slightly under 10 seconds. Women breaking world records in swimming in 2012 are fast enough to challenge Mark Spitz's times in the late 1960's. And during these London Games, 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen caused several bowties to rapidly spin around and royal monocles to pop out when she swam the last 50 meters of her split in the individual medley faster than Ryan Lochte.
As it stands now, the world's fastest women are about 90% as fast as the world's fastest men across a variety of sports and at a variety of distances; The Atlantic calls it the "golden ratio." But if current trends continue and women keep gaining on men, within the next century, the ladies will match the dudes in the water and on the track, according to a computerized projection.
Whether that will actually happen is up for debate, since game-changing sports innovations happen all the time and Olympians keep marrying each other and producing superbabies (marathon superstars Kara Goucher, Paula Radcliffe, and Deena Kastor have all recently given birth to future alpha runners, and 6 adorable married couples can boast that both parties are competing in this year's Olympics. And we can't forget about all of the professional athletes who keep impregnating Victoria's Secret models). But the concept of the world's fastest women approaching the world's fastest men presents new challenges to athletic officials, which they're handling about as poorly as possible.
It seems that as the gap between women and men's achievement narrows, IOC officials expect that women will do their best to look like what gender they're supposed to be, because women who race like men and look like men must be men, right? In order to prevent men from racing as women or women from doping themselves until their veins course with man-blood, a new gender testing procedure has been instituted — basically, if an official suspects that a female competitor may be a little too manly, that competitor will be subject to "gender testing" to make sure she's not packing too must testosterone. In other words, if a lady breaks a world record but looks too boyish, she can be singled out. Better get your nails done, ladies.
To play devil's advocate, it seems the genetic testing is designed to preserve the existence of women's sports; if anyone who identifies as female can compete regardless of their body's ability to produce performance-enhancing hormones, then why separate the genders at all? But gender testing that singles out individuals who dare not look girly enough is a pretty crappy way to do it. The Huffington Post's Maya Rupert points out that there's a crappy racial dimension to gender testing as well,
There is a widely held standard of beauty and femininity that is based on white racial characteristics. Because an assumption of whiteness has permeated gender norms, many features typically associated with white women are popularly mischaracterized as features of all women. Thus, women of color are often perceived as being less feminine. In a system where perception determines whether an athlete's gender will be tested, the inevitable result will be that women of color are more likely to be challenged.
This isn't alarmist hand-wringing; this has actually happened. South African runner Caster Semenya was basically turned into a side show and forced to undergo gender testing when officials doubted that she was really a girl. They later backpedaled, clarifying that they weren't testing her gender; they were simply testing to see if she had a "rare medical condition" that gave her a competitive advantage. Ah, yes. Because no elite athlete possesses any "rare" physical characteristics that may give them an advantage.
How athletic officials will navigate the ever-more-complicated waters of gender and athletic achievement remains to be seen. But as we as spectators are riveted by the razor thin distance between gold, silver, and bronze, in the future, we'll note the distance between what makes a man, what makes a woman, and what happens when they race.