In the vast majority of sports, men and women do not compete against one another directly and equally. By and large, this is because sports tend to be physical, indeed some definitions of the word include some reference to that, and – in general – men have an advantage in that regard.
We will not be looking at the issue of trans athletes in sport nor particularly debating whether or not men do have a physical advantage and why this is. Instead, in this article, we will be looking at sports in which they do compete on a completely level playing field and why that is and how it works. We will also consider sports where men and women do play against each other but where there are caveats; and lastly, we will consider some disciplines where it would seem they should be able to compete but, for whatever reason, do not.
There are many sports in which men and women compete against each other but where these are truly equal contests, they often involve teams made up of both men and women. The most famous example of this is mixed doubles in tennis, though if we include dance as a sport, many of the world championships are for male and female couples. Then, of course, we have ice dancing, where the legends of British sport, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, enjoyed so much success.
More recently variations on this model have been used in triathlon, golf and even wrestling, whilst teams of men and women also compete in synchronised swimming, many racket sports aside from tennis, athletic and swimming relays, curling, darts, volleyball, cycling and a whole host of other events.
This is rather different to the notion of men competing against women though. In truth, these are simply sports that include teams or pairs of men and women competing against other teams or pairs of men and women. In addition, some of these events are not necessarily fully professional or competitive, with matches and contests tending to be more for fun or socialising than for genuine competition.
Sports in Which Women & Men Go Head to Head
Aside from the sorts of mixed doubles, relays and social sports we have mentioned above, there are actually a very large number of sports in which women and men can compete at a professional level directly against one another. Whilst such competition may be theoretically possible, however, and even takes place, in many of these sports we have not yet seen women be truly competitive at or near the top of the sports in question.
We will now consider some of the sports where this is the case, looking at why women have struggled. We will also ask whether they might ever be able to regularly beat men or win events and also look at some of the notable examples of women attempting to get the better of the men.
There have been many examples of women playing in men’s events on the full tour, either in Europe or the USA. Perhaps the best example is one only the most ardent of golf fans will have heard of. Mildred Zaharias, who apparently went by “Babe” rather than Mildred, was born in 1911 in Texas and was a phenomenal sporting all-rounder.
At the 1932 Olympic Games in LA, she won two golds (80m hurdles and javelin) and a silver in the high jump. She also played baseball against men, appearing in some MLB exhibition games, was a fine basketball player and won an impressive 10 majors in female golf’s LPGA Tour. In 1938, she became the first woman to ever play on the PGA Tour, competing against men. She would go on to play against the men several more times, making the cut twice.
Sadly, however, she remains to this day the only woman to ever make it to the weekend on a PGA Tour event. More recently, Annika Sorenstam, shot 71, 74, to miss out at the Colonial in 2002, whilst Michelle Wie missed the cut in eight PGA events between 2004 and 2008 (though she did make the cut once on the Asian Tour) and there have been others.
Whilst there are team events in golf and in 2021 the Scandinavian Mixed was introduced, it seems unlikely a woman will ever be able to really compete against the top men. The Scandinavian Mixed was won by a woman, Linn Grant, in 2022, but this tournament used women’s tees, so cannot be viewed as a level playing field.
The reason for this, as with many sports, is that golf is simply too physical. In most eras of the game the best players, from Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy, have been the ones who have hit the ball the furthest. The extra height and muscle mass that men possess (on average) means that, in general, they can hit the ball much further than women. In a sport in which even the short-hitting men struggle to compete, there seems little real hope that women will be able to, at least not from the same tees.
Snooker is a far less physical sport, so much so, in fact, that many people question whether it is a sport at all (see darts, below). The main tour is open to both men and women and at the time of writing Reanne Evans is ranked the number one woman on the women’s tour and 120 on the open World Snooker Tour. She did manage to reach 85th but clearly at this moment in time women are not able to truly compete against men.
There is no obvious physical reason why this should be the case so most pundits feel it is simply down to the limited number of women that play the sport. Culturally, snooker has long been associated with working men’s clubs and other similarly male-dominated social environs, so very few girls and women take it up. This is changing but we are unlikely to see some sort of revolution when girls do not have any female role models in the sport that they see playing on television.
There are some who argue that men’s dominance of their sport is down to psychological factors. Back in 2014, Stever Davis said that he didn’t expect to see women compete at the very top, because “The male of the species has got a single-minded, obsessional type of brain that I don’t think so many females have”. Evans agreed with Davis to some extent, saying “I just think maybe men find it easier to focus on one thing at one time. Maybe that’s a slight advantage there,” although she also talked about how women’s greater burden of parenting and lack of financing were factors. She remains the only woman to have completed a season on the full tour, though other women have played in events here and there.
Darts is another sport (whether darts is or is not a sport is another debate) that allows women to compete against men. Equally, it is not a sport where men are at an obvious physical advantage and yet we have still not seen a woman right at the very top of the game.
We have emphasised the word “very” because Fallon Sherrock has beaten men on many occasions in major events. She became the first woman to beat a man at the PDC World Darts Championship, the highest profile (and quality) tournament in the sport. She achieved this feat at the 2020 tournament and then won again in the second round. She also made the final of the 2021 Nordic Masters and the quarter finals of the Grand Slam of Darts the same year.
Darts is certainly a sport in which the notion of men and women competing against each other at the very highest level is one that fans are growing more and more familiar with. We suspect their lack of sustained success is, once again, a cultural thing, with the number of girls and women playing darts being far smaller than the number of men. The success of Sherrock and others will certainly help grow the game and in time we may see more women breaking through on the main PDC stage.
In many of the different incarnations of motorsport there are no rules stopping men and women from competing head to head. Indeed, if we head straight to what many consider the pinnacle of the “genre”, Italian ace Lella Lombardi took part in 17 Formula 1 Grands Prix. Born in Piedmont in 1941 she also raced against men in various other motorsports including the 24-hour race at Le Mans and also NASCAR.
In 1975, she lined up in 10 of the 16 F1 Grands Prix with a best finish of sixth in Spain, finishing 21st overall. Four other women have also entered races in Formula 1, though of those only fellow Italian, Maria Teresa de Filippis, actually started a race (three times, with a best finish of 10th). In addition, there have been many test and development drivers and whilst piloting an F1 car is incredibly physically demanding, it is not thought that men have much, or any, advantage in this regard.
It is probably a lack of numbers involved in the sport that is the major thing holding women back. Once again, the absence of role models and cultural factors are all interlinked with this. There is some hope that Jamie Chadwick, currently a development driver with Williams, could end the long wait for a woman to drive again in F1. She won back to back open wheel championships in the women-only W Series and many believe she has what it takes.
There are various shooting disciplines, many of which feature at the Olympic Games and whether they should be considered to be sports or not is again a question we will ignore here. At the Olympics men and women compete separately, though there are also mixed-sex team events. This was not always the case, however, and between 1968 and 1980 there was just a single, open category.
In 1976, Margaret Murdock made history by becoming the first woman to win a medal in any of the open shooting disciplines. She tied with fellow US shooter, Lanny Bassham, who requested that they both be awarded a gold, though, in the end, Murdock had to settle for silver thanks to a form of tie-breaker. Whilst a single medal from 21 available may seem a poor haul, given women made up just one in 42 (eight out of 336) of the entrants, they were actually over-represented on the podium.
There have been various studies into what, if any, advantage men have over women in the sport but results have varied. The influence of grip strength and fatigue may be factors favouring men but not all research has found that to be significant. Once again, cultural and societal factors and the size of the pool from which athletes are drawn may be the most significant factors, though psychological issues may also contribute.
Sports Where Women Can Match Men
At the present time, for whatever reason, there are very few sports in which women are able to beat men regularly on a level playing field. However, there are some and it may well be that some of the less physical sports we have listed above join that short list in the years ahead. For now, however, the most obvious place to start is with animal-based sports.
By this, we essentially mean equestrian sports, ones involving horses. That said, it is worth noting that women also perform well in dog sledding, with Susan Butcher proving one of the most successful mushers of all time in the sport’s premier event, the Ititarod. However, outside of North America and a few northern European nations, it would be hard to find anyone with an interest in the sport and even in those nations it remains a niche interest.
For those who claim that a woman will never win the world championship in darts, snooker, or any other sport where men do not have a clear physical advantage, it should be remembered that it is not all that long ago that many racing experts were declaring that female jockeys would never be as good as men.
Legendary trainer, Ginger McCain, trained Red Rum to three victories in the Grand National, as well as repeating the feat with Amberleigh House more than three decades after his first triumph. It is fair to say that he knew a fair bit about the contest but he declared that a woman would never win the race in 2005. Talking about one of the riders that year, Carrie Ford, he said, “Horses do not win Grand Nationals ridden by women. Carrie is a grand lass, but if she wins the National I’ll bare my backside to the wind and let everyone kick it.”
She didn’t win, finishing fifth, then the joint-best finish by a woman in the race. Katie Walsh improved on that by riding Seabass to third in 2012 before the brilliant Rachael Blackmore steered Minella Times to victory in 2021. McCain was sadly not around to witness that feat but anyone who questioned whether women could compete at the very top of this sport has seen further new ground broken by women. Below is a selection of the best achievements of female jockeys in both Flat and National Hunt racing.
- 1977 – Charlotte Brew becomes the first female jockey in the Grand National (following 1975 Sex Discrimination Act).
- 1982 – Geraldine Ress becomes the first women to finish the Grand National.
- 1993 – Julie Krone becomes the first woman to win Belmont Stakes in USA. Krone rode 3,704 winners in total.
- 2012 – Katie Walsh is the first woman to make the top three in the Grand National (third on Seabass).
- 2015 – Aussie Michelle Payne becomes the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup on 100/1 shot Prince of Penzance.
- 2017 – Rachael Blackmore becomes the first woman to win the Conditional Riders’ Championship in Ireland.
- 2019 – Hollie Doyle rides a record (for a woman) 116 winners on the flat.
- 2019 – Bryony Frost becomes the first woman to win a Grade 1 race at the Cheltenham Festival (Ryanair Chase).
- 2020 – Doyle breaks her own record, notching 151 wins, also becoming the first woman to win five races on the same card.
- 2020 – Frost is the first woman to win Kempton’s King George VI.
- 2021 – Doyle smashes her own record once again by landing 172 wins, including another five-timer.
- 2021 – Blackmore is the first woman to become the leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival, also becoming the first to win the prestigious Champion Hurdle at the Festival.
- 2021 – Blackmore wins the Grand National on Minella Times.
- 2022 – Blackmore becomes the first woman to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup and also retains the Champion Hurdle.
- 2022 – Doyle guides Nashwa to third in the Oaks, the highest Classic finish by a female jockey.
These feats are proof that women can truly mix it with the very best in the sport when it comes to both Flat and National Hunt action. The current crop of women jockeys can only help serve to inspire a new generation, whilst also proving to the male-dominated sphere of owners and trainers that they are worthy of rides on the top horses.
Traditionally, it was thought that women just weren’t strong enough to be competitive, especially in the more testing, longer races of the jumps game. However, the incredible feats of the likes of Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore have put paid to that notion. Indeed, in recent times, it is the NH realm in which women have been most successful.
There are many factors at play when it comes to assessing the relative merits of male versus female horse riders. A great jockey needs balance, strength, bravery and to be in tune with their horse, among other things. A large part of the sport, however, is the ability to make the weight, and it is suggested by some that women’s smaller frames give them an advantage in this regard. It is often easier for them to hit the required weight without having to fast, diet or undertake other practices that may cause them to lose muscle mass and power.
In a society in which people are generally getting taller and larger, this may be a major advantage and there are also suggestions that women may have a more intuitive relationship with the horses too. A 2018 study by the University of Liverpool claimed to prove that women were just as good as men when the quality of the rides they got was taken into account.
Since then it seems that women have been given better opportunities on horses that have genuine chances in big races and they are delivering. Blackmore’s achievement in being the leading jockey at National Hunt’s biggest festival, and winning two of the four championship contests, proves that there is nothing to stop women when it comes to a career in the saddle and it can only be a matter of time before a woman wins one of Flat racing’s Classics.
Other Equestrian Sports
In terms of the amount bet on it and the number of people who regularly attend meetings or watch racing on TV it is by far the largest horse-based sport. However, it is far from the only major one and dressage, show jumping and eventing have a significant number of fans in the UK and around the world.
There are three equestrian disciplines at the summer Olympic Games and all three see men and women go head to head in both team and individual competitions. At the 2020 Games all three of the individual dressage medals were won by women and a woman took gold in the eventing, whilst they were also represented in the medals across all three disciplines (including jumping) in the team events.
As with all the sports we have looked at the picture is not simple or straightforward. Whilst in dressage the women have almost caught up with men in terms of gold medals, despite having participated for 40 fewer years, in the other events the balance of power lies firmly with the men. That is changing, leading some to say that women are better, but even this is complicated by the fact that there are far more women taking part in these equestrian events, making it hard to draw a direct comparison. Nonetheless, we can certainly say that women can and do compete very equally and with some success against men in this sphere.
In recent times, there has been a lot of research into how men and women compare when it comes to performance in extreme endurance sports. Much of the focus has been on ultra-marathons and similar running performances, as well as extreme endurance races in cycling and swimming.
We know that over 100m the world record for men is much quicker and the same is true for every distance up to and including a marathon (or 422x100m runs in a row!). The same is true when we look at swimming and cycling. But once we go beyond the bounds of what we might view as normal athletic performance and truly into the world of endurance, the balance shifts.
This phenomenon was probably first noted and is most established when it comes to ultraswims. Research in 2014 showed that women performed significantly better in long, open-water swims, especially when the water was cold. It is believed that the main reason for this is the higher body fat percentage of most women. In open water, this gives them better protection from the cold and also helps their buoyancy. In addition, on such long-distance swims (of at six miles), the fact that they are better able to use this fat for energy is important.
Over the past decade or so there have been many examples of women beating men in open races. In 2019, Jasmin Paris broke the record for the 268-mile Spine Race, even managing to stop during the gruelling endurance test to express milk for her baby! That same year German cyclist, Fiona Kolbinger, won The Transcontinental Race, over almost 4,000km, becoming the first woman to do so.
There are now so many ultra events where women are consistently performing superbly that it seems they can at the very least match the men, if not even better them (in general terms). In events that last multiple days this trend is clearer, with a suggestion that women may have more slow twitch muscle fibres, proportionally speaking, and also a more efficient way of burning fat for energy once normal energy supplies are depleted.
Some also argue that psychologically they are better equipped for such races, though this is harder to prove. Last of all, they may have tendons and ligaments that are more suited to such extreme tests. Once again, no matter what the reason, as with the various equestrian events, there can be no doubting that women can at least compete with success against men.
The Yorkshire Lass
One woman who was proving these sorts of ideas and theories in practice, long before they existed as intellectual notions, was Leeds/Morley cycling legend, Beryl Burton. Born in 1937, she set countless records, many of which stood for an incredibly long time despite the improved training and equipment of the modern era.
One of her most famous was a 12-hour time trial where she cycled an incredible 277.25 miles. Set in 1967, this remained the women’s record until 2017 which is truly astounding when one thinks about the technology of modern bikes and attire, let alone training and nutrition. What makes this record even more staggering – and relevant to this piece – is that for two years it stood not just as a women’s record but as a record full stop. A man would not surpass that distance until 1969, showing that Burton did not just compete on a level playing field, but won on one too.
There are perhaps far more sports where men and women directly compete than many people realise. Ignoring many team or pairs sports that see men and women play together against other mixed teams, women have competed against men in golf, Formula 1 and other motorsports, darts, snooker and other sports.
There are some sports where it seems highly unlikely that men and women will be able to compete. The most physical sports, where height, weight, power and strength are crucial to the outcome, give men too much of an advantage. As such, many ball games, but especially rugby, American football and basketball, are unlikely to see men and women competing on a level playing field.
There is perhaps some form of a sliding scale where skill and technique become more important than a player’s physical attributes. Football, tennis and golf are, it would seem, all just a little too physical. However, snooker, darts and motorsports could, we feel, see top-level women taking on and beating men on a regular basis in the years to come.
In terms of sports where that is already happening, extreme endurance sports and equestrian sports lead the way in terms of females being equal, or often even better than men. In the former, it seems they have certain physiological advantages, whilst in the latter a range of factors may account for their excellent performance.
Society as a whole is slowly becoming more equal and as social and cultural norms become less of a factor we may see women breaking through in more events. Over time, we will certainly have a larger sample size to compare in sports like darts, snooker and motorsports, so we should begin to get a better idea of what physical and psychological factors impact men and women who play them.