One Atlantic article walks back another

October 2, 2022 • 9:23 am

On September 17, Maggie Mertens published an article in The Atlantic, “Separating sports by sex doesn’t make sense“, which I wrote about here two days thereafter. Mertens adduced a number of dubious arguments for her argument that in “youth sports”, which includes sports through high school (students aged up to about 18), there should be no separate men’s and women’s teams, but the sexes should be combined. My criticisms included Mertens’s failure to distinguish sex from gender, her claim that—against all the data—men don’t have average biological advantages over women in athletic performance, her reliance on anecdotes instead of data, and the unworkability of her “solution”, which involves grouping all athletes together in teams whose members have roughly equal abilities.

Mertens’s article was widely criticized, including, as you see below, by Jesse Singal and Martina Navatilova.

Perhaps the criticism—or The Atlantic‘s realization that it had commissioned a wrongheaded article—made them commission a new rebuttal to Mertens’s piece, which you can read below for free by clicking on the screenshot. The author is Steve Magness, identified as “a performance coach and sports scientist” and “the author of Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.”

First off, this article isn’t about whether transsexual athletes should compete against cissexual ones. That heated debate he leaves for the future. Nor is he arguing that men’s sports should draw more attention than women’s, nor that men should be paid more; in fact, he argues against that. His argument is simply that Mertens’s solution of mixing males and females in school sports is wrongheaded, at least for athletes who have gone through puberty.

Magness’s point rests on the simple acknowledgment that, on average, puberty gives men substantial athletic advantages against women—advantages not seen before either sex undergoes puberty. The higher levels of testosterone (a steroid hormone) accompanying male puberty causes the development of athletic differences between men and women, differences that give men a performance average of 10% or more over women—even higher in strength sports like weightlifting.

Why is this important to recognize? For several reasons that Magness mentions at the end (see below), with the foremost being that if one allows cisgender men and women to have mixed teams, as Mertens suggested, the men would eventually nose out the women if teams are assembled by performance.  And this is unfair to biological (cis) women.

Magness on the data:

When looking at elite runners—whether sprinting 100 meters or racing many miles—once athletes hit physical maturity, the best men have anywhere from a 9 to a 12 percent advantage over the best women. A significant gap can be seen in cycling, swimming, speed skating, high-jumping, and a variety of other athletic feats. The gap is even larger in sports that depend highly on strength. For example, when looking at elite weight lifters in the same weight class, the performance gap is about 24 to 30 percent.

It’s important to note a few caveats. First, most of the best research is on sports that are easily quantifiable. For example, there’s no way to directly compare the skill levels of elite tennis players to measure for tiny performance differences unless they play one another. What we know is that the less a sport relies on speed, power, or endurance, and the more it relies on skill, the smaller the gap is. In sports like shooting and archery, the difference between men and women is negligible at best. Second, the performance gap of course doesn’t mean that all men will triumph over all women all the time. My comparatively unathletic brother would get beaten by thousands of women in a mile-long race. And if my wife showed up to a local turkey trot, she’d likely decimate all the men. Third, because there is significant overlap between males and females in performance, female outliers can shine, particularly in niche sports with a small number of competitors (e.g., ultrarunning).

But at the top of the top of the athletic world, in widely played sports with elite coaching, the gap between the sexes seems almost insurmountable. Take the queen of track and field, Allyson Felix. The 11-time Olympic medalist’s best 400-meter time ever is 49.26. In just the 2022 season, that would have put her 689th on the boys’ high-school performance list.

None of this is meant to disparage the phenomenal women athletes at the top of their game. But if we stopped dividing sport by sex, elite women’s sport as we know it could cease to exist. We might miss out on Megan Rapinoe at the World Cup or the spectacle of Sydney McLaughlin effortlessly gliding over hurdle after hurdle. Acknowledging the performance differential should encourage us to do everything possible to make sure female athletes can keep competing at these levels.

He also considers whether the sex differences in performance are “sociological”, and can be ascribed to things like sexism leading to differential training or investment, and for several reasons rejects those as the primary cause of sex differences—though perhaps a part of the cause. The data show that in the past 30 years, despite an improvement in women’s training and a lessening of sexism, the sex gap in five sports—cycling, weightlifting, swimming, speed skating, and track and field—remains. Though performance in both sexes is improving, they’re improving at roughly the same rate, so that the puberty-induced gap has stayed about the same.

I think this is a fair and evenhanded piece, as it takes pains to give the caveats and to avoid denigrating women’s sports, which shouldn’t be denigrated. And he also gives the advantages of acknowledging the post-puberty data, which raises several questions whose answers are driven by both data and ethics:

The upside of acknowledging that sex differences in performance exist is that we can discuss the vital, knotty debates that emerge from this biology. For example, would creating more coed sporting opportunities before, say, age 10, keep girls in sport longer? How should schools and clubs handle a young female athlete who wants to play football even though there’s no girls’ team? Should we get rid of sex-based divisions in sports like shooting, where the performance gap is minimal? We certainly need to figure out better answers for trans athletes and people like Caster Semenya, who, because she has differences of sexual development, is allowed to compete in the 5K but not the 800-meter race.

I find the first three questions especially interesting, because they are the easiest to answer. If there is no difference in sports ability between boys and girls before puberty, why not allow mixed teams? And surely there are some women who would qualify to be on men’s school teams; why not let them in? Finally, if the average performance of men and women in shooting is about the same (I’m not sure if there’s a gap), why not let the sexes compete against each other, even at “elite” levels like the Olympics?

Issues like those of transsexual athletes, or people with disorders of sex development, pose harder questions, and I have no solution save create an “other” category, or have two categories: “biological men + transsexual and DSD athletes” on the one hand and “biological women” on the other. That, of course, has its own downside, including stigmatization, but to me the increased fairness to the many cisgender women who compete in sport outweighs other considerations.

To Magness, though, all questions must begin with the admission of a puberty-induced athletic advantage of males over females. Why do people resist what is such an obvious answer. Because many “progressive” ideologues don’t want to believe that there are evolved biological differences between the sexes. Ergo, the differences we see are due entirely to socialization.

Here’  the salutary results Magness sees in admitting the truth (note: he and his wife were both runners, but she competed better against other women than he did against other men):

To solve these questions, we need to first accept the premise that puberty can create unequal sporting ability. Doing so doesn’t mean that we stop fighting inequality or dismiss tricky edge cases. It actually should free us from arguing over what should be a noncontroversial claim. We can then shift our focus to making sure women have the space, resources, and opportunities to show their talents. We can acknowledge that though I might have run faster at my peak, my wife’s performance and achievements are undoubtedly more impressive. We can stop judging female athletes against their male counterparts and enjoy their athleticism on its own accord.

Given that Magness opposes mixed men’s and women’s teams after puberty, he would surely oppose something that the ACLU and the Biden Administration has supported: the right of medically untreated men and women to compete with members of the sex to which they say they belong. This would result in medically untreated biological men who identify as women competing against biological women, and only a witless ideologue could support that.

The only question I have about this article is this: how did it come to be? Did The Atlantic realize it screwed up by publishing Mertens’s piece and asked someone to write a rebuttal? Or did it commission both pieces to show both sides of a “controversy”? If so, Magness has the better arguments by far.

Now you might say that this is all a tempest in a teapot, but it’s not. The number of adolescent men who identify as women is increasing rapidly (and women who identify as men even faster), and that teapot is going to get pretty big pretty fast.

17 thoughts on “One Atlantic article walks back another

  1. Magness writes a really good, solid piece. There are actual biological differences between women and men along some axes on the average, even at the elite level: muscle strength, size, speed, and power. No amount of talk will make those differences go away. This reality needs to be the starting point in creating fair opportunities for both sexes in sport.

    It’s good to see the Atlantic do the right thing here and publish a counter argument. I’m a subscriber, and they generally do a very good job.

  2. That was a good one. It seems so simple, really, that persons who have for years been stewing in anabolic steroids (testosterone) should not compete with people who haven’t.

    There are some sports where men and women could compete rather well together, I think, even though they are segregated. Curling and corn-hole (which is a serious thing!). I don’t know why there are men and women divisions, except maybe it protects the male ego?

    1. “I don’t know why there are men and women divisions, except maybe it protects the male ego?”

      In most cases it is nothing more than a relic of the past, when almost everything men and women did was segregated. I don’t know about curling and corn-hole (what an awful name!), but the simplest explanations are usually the best.

  3. I suspect that articles that claim there is no biological difference between men and women in sport are ‘inspired’ by the dogged persistence of the ‘blank slate’ myth.

    *If* people are born as ‘blank slates’ for society to write upon then it follows that there need be no privilege in any area of life. The underprivileged can be raised up and the overprivileged pulled down without moral upset because we are all born equal. This does, of course, deny the findings that around 50% of the differences between people are genetic, and therefore a matter of conception, not birth.

    1. I can understand that blank-slaters would say there can be no differences between the two sexes’ performance. A quick glance out of the window of their ivory tower would correct them, but “there’s none so blind as them as will not see.” What really irritates me, though, are the players who choose an easy and unfair victory over weaker opponents. Sportsmanship used to mean wanting a fair fight, a level playing field, and no cheating. A win is only worth something when it is hard won against worthy competition. Now I shall not be so crass as to suggest that certain infamous transwomen are just pretending so that they might have the victories they could not attain as men. Let us be charitable about their gender, and then let us remind them it is ill-mannered, ungentlemanly and unsportsmanlike to play against those who are weaker and slower. It is exactly the same as letting an 18 year old run in the elementary school sports day, and if you think that’s wrong, why let male bodies trounce female bodies and call it fair?

  4. I’m with Christopher Hitchens on this, “Assertions made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Just say no… and continue to say no until such verifiable evidence is forthcoming.

    1. The case is much stronger than “no evidence” – there is a mountain for the opposite case. Aside from that, anyone with experience of the actual world knows in their bones that women cannot compete successfully with average men in most sports*. “Witless ideologues” is an excellent description for those who think otherwise.

      *I’ve been out of the sport for years, but when I was active there were women climbers who were as good as or better than even the best men, certainly better than me. See Lynne Hill.

  5. I don’t think that sports should remain sex-segregated for athletes only after puberty out of a concern for fairness stemming from innate performance differences but perhaps even before. I’ll give you several reasons why we might not want to integrate boys and girls sports teams for prepubescent youth.
    1) It creates challenging problems to manage that weren’t an issue before. The stigma of boys being beaten by girls in competition and boys feeling pressured or humilated as a result would be unhelpful (parents play a part here). In soccer, for example, I can imagine on field boy v girl bullying both physical and verbal/psychological that isn’t a factor now so why create it?
    2) There’s the taboo of boys playing aggressively to distinguish themselves which against other boys is perceived as healthy competition and motivation to self-improve but against girls will be perceived as too aggressive or violent. A boy hurt on the field (like the playground) at the hands of another boy will be treated very differently than if he injures a girl. We have an innate propensity to want to protect women that is also woven into our culture. It’s why direct male vs female competition, regardless of competency, is almost never done. (I did like this essay’s point of integrating some sports that involve precision like markmanship).
    3) Lastly, I think sex-segregated youth sports are helpful for young boys and girls to build a sense of self and distinct male and female (innate) solidarity that goes beyond just team (contrived) solidarity. It’s good for boys, girls, men, and women.

    I’ve observed some integrated youth sports work fine depending on the sport and the age group but what really is the motivation here? Inclusion of under 13 trans kids in sports? Surely that is a tiny number of students and frankly, a controversial identity claim to begin with but I recognize times are changing. Does anyone believe that integrating youth sports wouldn’t result in fewer girls participating because they might feel unwelcome? I would wager a significantly greater number of girls would not participate in youth sports or drop out if they became coed than the number of trans youth that would be included if they were. So what’s fair?

  6. People will argue that men do not have a physical advantage over women in sports . . . if you include transwomen [especially those who simply identify as women without undergoing any physical alteration] as women. True, cis-gender women may be at a disadvantage, but who cares about them?

    1. > People will argue that men do not have a physical advantage over women in sports

      People also forget that sexual dimorphism varies from ethnic group to ethnic group. NIH Report. In ethnic groups with less dimorphism, the playing field is closer to leveled; in ethnic groups with more dimorphism, there is not only a greater physical advantage for men over women, but also for members of more dimorphic ethnicities over less dimorphic ones. It would be fair to segregate out more sexually dimorphic ethnicities, right?

      I’m glad we don’t, though. Of course, with the ongoing push for PC safe spaces, I wouldn’t be surprised to see new arenas developed so everyone can showcase their talents amongst their biometric peers.

  7. I’ve become a supporter of sex desegregation in sports. Why? Because I don’t care for sports, and would be amused to see the rationalizations that would come about to explain the near total absence of women in elite sports. My guess is that they would have to impose some kind of handicap on males to make it equal. I would find this hilarious.

  8. Issues like those of transsexual athletes, or people with disorders of sex development, pose harder questions, and I have no solution save create an “other” category, or have two categories

    But surely people with DSDs do actually fit into the sex binary even though which one may be harder to discern in some cases? I believe that Caster Semenya is capable of having fathered the child s/he has with his/her wife, although the couple haven’t confirmed the parentage.

    1. Correct, Jez. People with DSDs do fit into the Male XOR Female sex binary as determined by gametes.* It’s only the external genitalia that are ambiguous. The internal gonads are straightforward although testicles may not be in the right place and not everyone is fertile by nature’s way. They are not “intersex” and I appreciate your not using the term.

      The international sporting bodies have pretty much got these issues sorted. For practical purposes, if your testosterone level is too high for a woman you are either doping or you are a man, no matter how your mother decided to bring you up. The exception is a typical-appearing woman who is found to have high testosterone but turns out to have XY chromosomes and complete androgen insensitivity. She can legitimately compete against women because she has never experienced any testosterone effect and never will. Were she a non-human animal we would call her male (by gamete-producing organs) but being a human raised to adolescence as a girl before there was any reason to suspect otherwise, a woman she remains.

      Ms. Mac and I really liked the links you shared on the “It as a pronoun” thread. Thanks!
      * except for rare XX/XY mosaics but I’m trying to keep this short.

  9. Performance differences between elite male and female athletes is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the results of the individual time trial events at the recent UCI (Cycling) World Championships held recently in Woolongong, Australia.

    While the men’s and women’s events were run separately, they were both held on the same day and over the same 34.2 km (approx 21.3 miles) course.

    The average speed for the winner of the men’s race was 51.257 km/hr whereas for the winner of the women’s race it was 46.130 km/hr. That would have placed the latter in 33rd place in the men’s event. Only eleven of the competitors in the women’s event had times that would have paced them in the top 50 in the men’s event.

    The full results of both the Men’s and Women’s events can be viewed here, and here,

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