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05 August 2012


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Gary Williams

"The demands of the sport produce the characteristic body of top athletes in that sport."

I think some caution is needed here in spelling out what is meant by the sport "producing" the characteristic body. On one interpretation, this notion commits what Nassim Taleb calls the "Swimmer's body fallacy". From The Black Swan,

"When asking around about the comparative physical elegance of athletes, I was often told that runners looked anorexic, cyclists bottom-heavy, and weight lifters insecure and a little primitive. I inferred that I should spend some time inhaling chlorine in New York University pool to get those "elongated muscles." Now suspend the causality. Assume that a person's genetic variance allows for a certain type of body shape. Those born with a natural tendency to develop a swimmer's body become better swimmers. These are the ones you see in your sample splashing up and down at the pools. But they would have looked pretty much the same if they lifted weights."

While it seems plausible that at least some aspects of training produce the characteristic body (lifting weights makes your muscles bigger), natural variation in the population coupled with a self-selection process can better explain the characteristic shapes of athletes.

John Protevi

Hello Gary, yes, but that's what I say, once implicitly and another time explicitly. Certainly a notion of genetic variation is implicit when I say in the paragraph preceding the one you cite: "the women's competitors can lift more than all but a tiny slice of the male population." And it's explicit in the following paragraph when I say: "So it's not just the individual body whose limits cannot be determined ahead of time, but also the coach-and-athlete compound body, and further, the body politic that enables a search through the population for people showing potentials for success in an endeavor."

Besides, the argument is about gender. I'm not saying that you can make a silk purse of an Olympian out of the sow's ear of a person w/o appropriate genetic gifts simply by hard work. I'm saying that the demands of the sport, when pursued by people with rare genetic gifts revealed by a search through the population for potentials, produce a body that is appropriate to the sport, with minimal reference to sex or gender. That is, male and female weightlifters look alike, because they're weightlifters. This is the key point I'm trying to make: "It's only because men have dominated elite sport for so long that we think of an athletic body as masculine. But it's not; it's just athletic."


Thanks for this.

Another thing is the discussion about whether female boxers should wear skirts because shorts apparently are not feminine enough. The other idea behind it is that women's boxing should be made more attractive to male viewers by making sure that it is, like tennis and hockey, full of unavoidable upskirt shots.
(Don't know how to connect this to Plato or Spinoza though.)



It may also be the case that a reason the body-type of weightlifters (male or female) is considered "male" is that such body types are more similar to non-weightlifting male bodies than non-weightlifting female bodies. This may be the case for most athletic excellence, since things like muscle to fat ratios are typically higher in men than women, and those who excell in athletics will need such higher ratios. Broad shoulders/narrow hips may be another such case. I'm just speculating.

This isn't that surprising, if true. Jane English has made the point that men excell in athletics to a greater degree that women in part because the type of activities deemed "athletic" have hisorically played to men's strengths (sorry for the pun). Sports have been designed for men. Women have "followed" men into sports, with few exceptions.

John Protevi

Hello aj, thanks, this is a good comment. In response, I think we have to make two moves here: one is to replace "male" and "female" as types with population thinking; the other is to thematize a sort of hidden training that many males get.

So when you say that "muscle to fat ratios are typically higher in men than in women," I'd want to look at distributions so that we would see what kind of overlap there is between the populations (that's the point of the post, that there's a lot of overlap except at the very tail end of the top performance side). Second, we'd want to look at daily activities of the populations -- it's not just weightlifting that can affect muscle / fat ratios. And here I don't think we'll ever get to a "natural" state. As with child care, I think it's cultural all the way down, and we just won't ever know what a "typical" male or female looks like; all we'll be able to see is how the overlap of populations shifts -- or not -- dependent on the gendered division of access to training -- formal weight training and the sort of silent training that comes from what games children play.

I'll have to read the Jane English work to which you refer, but I don't think "men excel in athletics to a greater degree than women." Again, we have to shift to population thinking. I think the very best men outperform the very best women (usual by 10% in world record difference, at least in track and field, which I think is equivalent in swimming), but there is a vast overlap of the populations, and it's in that overlap that we mere mortals reside. And we won't know how that overlap will be affected by changes in formal and informal training until we try it out.

Now as for the sports have been designed for men claim, there is certainly something to that, just as a matter of historical fact. But that needn't have much normative bite or even much predictive power. No one is saying that elite sport should be conducted w/o regard to gender. But mass sports -- e.g., the local road race -- is now often conducted w/o regard to gender, and we see varying overlaps in performance there.


All good points. I think the silent training bit could explain a lot, but not everything. I'm certainly not competent to speak to estrogen/testosterone levels and their effects on muscle development, but there seems to be some consensus on sex differences. (To say nothing of height, which surely isn't cultural all the way down.)

As to the overlap, It would be interesting to see what the differences are in the general population. At the high school level in the US, it's fairly rare to have the girls' and boys' performances on par in things like swimming, track, and cross country. Performances are pretty balanced ( or even favor girls), until about when one might expect them to diverge - on the onset of puberty.

This isn't to say that cultural factors won't swamp all the others. This is something that won't likely be resolved on a philosophy blog - sad to say.

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