Sex and performance anxiety

ANDREW COYNE: Why are our women Olympians doing so much better than the men?

As absolutely everyone has noted, 80% of the medals for Canada thus far in the games have been won by women – a pattern seen in previous games as well. How to explain this? Canadian Olympic Committee chief Chris Rudge, no fool he, gives the safe, media-friendly answer:

Chris Rudge, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said there was no simple answer to the question of why women do better at the Games – although he suggested that women could have an inherent advantage in dealing with high-pressure elite athletics.

He said the organization plans to study the issue of the gender split in medals after the Vancouver Olympics.

“The best explanation is that women did better,” he said. “We haven’t sort of done the post-game analysis yet. So when we do, maybe we’ll have an explanation as to were the women better prepared? Were they genetically better-wired to handle pressure? I don’t have those answers, but we’ll do that after the Games.”

I am trying to imagine the fate of the official who speculated that men were “genetically better-wired to handle pressure,” or anything else for that matter. More to the point, it’s a completely idiotic explanation. The Canadian women who “handled pressure” better weren’t competing with men: they beat other women from other countries, who presumably weren’t so well-wired, pressure-handlingwise.

For a contrasting view, we go to Clara Hughes, multiple medal-winner in both Summer and Winter Games, perhaps Canada’s greatest Olympian ever. Also a woman, and therefore not so inclined to dive into the nearest politically-correct foxhole when the subject of gender comes up:

Clara Hughes, Canada’s best-known female athlete, said Thursday that the success of Canadian women should be celebrated, but that direct comparisons between men and women’s events are problematic.

“Sport at this level is unfathomably hard, but it’s different,” said Ms. Hughes, who won her sixth Olympic medal, a bronze, on Wednesday.

She said the field of play is typically more crowded for men, making it tougher for them to get enough resources to compete properly. “It takes a lot more resources to be able to develop men to the level as women in many sports.”

Ms. Hughes, who has won medals in the Winter and Summer Olympics, said men’s fields are often deeper in sports like cycling, speed skating and cross-country skiing.

“When you get a top 10 result as a male, it’s unbelievable. It’s out of this world,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s easier to win as a female. But in terms of depth, it’s different.”

… Hughes said religion, culture and custom in many countries limit opportunities for women in sports.

“There are countries in this world that do not allow their females to even participate in sports let alone be supported,” she said. “I’ve never been in a country and felt the support that I’ve felt in Canada. It’s just unconditional and I’ve always felt that Canadians celebrate success whether it’s a guy or a girl.”

We should note that although female athletes made up 43% of the Olympic team, they received fully half the funding. In other words, although it costs less, according to Hughes, to produce a world-class female athlete than a male, we give them more funding per capita.

Which poses a conundrum. If winning medals is the sole objective, then perhaps we should give even more of the funding to women: that would be the most efficient allocation, after all, in terms of dollars per medal. But if gender parity is the goal, that would argue in favour of giving a greater share of the funding to the men, since it costs more to produce a male athlete of comparable competitiveness: men have, as it were, special needs.

Cat, meet pigeons.

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