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Tuesday, July 10, 2012
THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES MAY SOON BE FOUGHT ON THE PLAYING FIELD

By ERIC ADELSON

THE PERFECT 10

Why stop at sprinting? Tennessee frosh Candace Parker won last spring's McDonald's All-American High School Slam Dunk contest. Annika Sorenstam is a Skins Gamer. And there's growing talk of women Olympians switching from the heptathlon to the decathlon: France's Marie Collonville became the first woman to break the 8,000-point barrier in the decathlon last September. (The men's American record is 8,891; the world record is 9,026.) "I know eventually it will happen," reigning world champion Tom Pappas says. "If you're going to do the multievent, why not do 10 instead of seven?" Full disclosure: Tom's wife, Kim, is a heptathlete who has tried the dec. And yes, they plan to have kids.

IN THE CROSSHAIRS

Maybe it's time for men to head back to Mars. A study out of Oxford predicts that within a few generations, the world's best women will be faster than the speediest men. "If current trends continue," researcher Andrew Tatem asserts in Nature magazine, "then women will run faster than men in the 100 meters of the 2156 Olympics." That's based on plotlines of each gender's best 100-meter sprint time, which appear destined to intersect at the 8.079 second mark. Of course, men will still have more testosterone (natural testosterone, at least) and bigger hearts (heart chambers, that is), so even the Oxford doc himself wonders if current trends will continue. We wonder something else: if women have narrowed a centuries-long head start on the track in only a couple of decades, how long before they're competing against men in all sports?

SHE'S GOT LEGS

Women may have one long-term genetic advantage: their wheels. Compare the gams of elite male and female sprinters, and it's tough to tell the difference. But consider that women have a lower center of gravity, less upper-body mass and wider hips-a better foundation for certain sports. "In disciplines like pole-vaulting," says fitness expert Melyssa St. Michael, "they could rival the men." A Buffalo-area vaulter named Mary Saxer recently became the first U.S. high school girl to clear 14 feet. That would have won men's state titles as recently as the 1980s. As long as men keep raising the record, says Saxer's coach, Rick Suhr, "we're going to keep jumping higher. We're just that confident." Asked if a woman could someday vault 20 feet, Suhr laughs. Then he says, "How soon?"

A WOMAN'S WAKE

This subject got Michael Phelps' coach scanning the record books. Bob Bowman reports the gap between men and women in the 800 freestyle has dropped from 54.5 seconds in 1960 to only 37 seconds today. And women have cut the 100 butterfly difference nearly in half since 1960, from 10.1 seconds to 5.92. But that's more because of opportunity, coaching, even culture, than straight genetics. "Women weren't doing strength training," Bowman says. "Nobody wanted big shoulders." No woman in the near future will have lungs like Phelps, but that may not matter in longer races. "The pool is too short," Bowman says. "The area where I see men and women competing is superdistance." Same on solid ground: in the past 40 years, the top men's marathon times have improved by an annual average of 66 seconds. Women? They're shaving nearly three minutes every year.

THE FAIR WAY

The first place where women might rule? On the greens. The ladies would have to move back to the men's tees, but Michelle Wie's already smoking 300-yard drives at age 15. She'll likely grow to be 6'1". "If she works out and does a great program the next three years," says her former coach, Gary Gilchrist, "she could be stronger than 60% of men." Gilchrist thinks Wie can eventually win not only a men's tournament, but a major. Then there's the Se Ri Pak effect. When the South Korean started winning LPGA events, the Asian floodgates opened; likewise, Wie will have throngs of girls picking up clubs as infants. "People laughed at Michelle at first," Gilchrist says. "When she's 21, I want to see how many are laughing."

CHICKS WITH STICKS

John Franco still has a job, so it's not impossible to imagine a crafty distaff lefty reliever or a knuckleballer someday having a cup of coffee in the majors. But at least football and hockey will always remain all-male. Or not. Kicker Katie Hnida scored points in a Division I football game in 2003. Hayley Wickenheiser became the first woman to score a point in a men's hockey league in Europe in 2003. And Olympic gold medalist Angela Ruggiero played a game for the CHL's Tulsa Oilers last month. (Her brother, Bill, plays goal for the Oilers.) A heartwarming sideshow? Nope. The 5'9", 185 pounder notched an assist in a 7-2 victory; she's considering trying a European men's league, where speed and tactics trump clutch and grab. "Europe almost mimics women's hockey now," she says. How long before a woman's place is in the home team's lineup?