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Women on the verge of an athletic showdown.

The same year Roger Bannister ran the first 4-minute mile, Diane Leather became the first woman to run the 5-minute mile. If the two had raced against each other in 1954, Leather would have finished 320 meters behind Bannister. Today, Paula Ivan, the women's champion 1-mile runner, would finish only 180 meters behind men's champion Steve Cram.

Female track athletes are improving their performances at faster rates than men and, if the trend continues, should be running marathons as fast as men by 1998, says Brian J. Whipp, a physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He and UCLA co-worker Susan A. Ward predict that women will catch up with men in most track events by early next century.

Whipp and Ward plotted the mean running velocity of world champion runners over the past 100 years for men and the past 70 years for women. They expected that improvements in mean running velocity would show signs of leveling off as athletes approached physiological limits. "To our complete surprise, we found there were no limits evident," Whipp says. Women appeared to be increasing their top speeds at twice the rate of men, the researchers report in the Jan. 2 NATURE.

Advances in running shoes, tracks, training and sports nutrition all contribute to faster running speeds, Whipp suspects. And an ever-expanding pool of athletes--broadening fastest among women -- heightens the chance that those genetically best suited to an event will join the race, he adds.

But so far, explanations for the findings remain pure speculation, Whipp laments. He hopes physiological studies of champions will bring further enlightenment. And while he can't predict whether women will actually outrun men, he says there's no hint that their progress will slow.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 11, 1992
Words:286
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