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Will the next Ironman be a woman?

On Oct. 22, 1988, Paula Newby-Fraser, a 26-year-old woman from Zimbabwe, ran from the shores of Hawaii's Kona Coast into the Pacific Ocean. When she emerged, dripping, almost an hour later, most of the other 1,274 swimmers were still thrashing through the waves. Paula ran to the transition station to find her bike. She had just completed the first third of the Ironman, the grueling race that began as a beer-inspired bet in 1978 and gave birth to the word "triathlon."

During the bike ride Paula gained momentum, pedaling past each of the four women who had outswum her. She didn't look at her watch because she didn't want to feel hurried. "I had a very relaxed mental attitude," she said.

Paula relaxed through the marathon as well. As she approached the turnaround point, she saw her boyfriend, Paul Huddle, running at a slower pace. She had never passed him in a race before, and had never dreamed that she would. "It's terrible," she says, "but I didn't want to pass him. When I saw him, I'm going, "No, that's not him.' When I got closer, I'm going, "Oh my God, it's him.' "

Paula crossed the finish line with enough energy left over for a triumphant raised-arms salute. She finished in 11th place _ a mere 12 seconds after the 10th-place man and just 30 minutes, 1 second after the male winner. Her time of 9:01:01 would have been fast enough to beat every man in any Ironman triathlon before 1984.

"I never thought a woman could go this fast," she said.

Like others, Paula had decided that relative to men, women would always be slow. The consensus is that men are better athletes than women, period. And while it's impossible to find sports in which all men are better than all women, it's true that many male athletes are better than many female athletes, and that the overall world records in most sports belong to men.

Men often act as if women athletes are inferior, racing to cover women's positions in coed softball or volleyball games, offering unsolicited advice on golf courses, tennis courts, anywhere sports are played. Although many women bristle at these intrusions, others collude in the belief that men know more about sports and are more capable. Like many myths, that of female physical inferiority becomes true the more people act as if it were true. "You can't do that, you're not that strong, you just can't' _ that's what you're told," says Bowling Hall of Famer Betty Morris. "If you hear that enough, you can't."

To sort out natural differences from environmentally created ones, physiologists speak of sex-linked characteristics, carried on the Y chromosomes, and gender-associated characteristics, carried on through the culture. Height, weight and strength are sex-linked, physiologists say. The average man is naturally taller, heavier and stronger than the average woman. Yet there is considerable overlap: Many women are taller, heavier and stronger than many men.

Differences also exist in average cardiorespiratory capability, percentage of body fat and thermoregulation. In other words, the average man has a bigger heart and lungs, he is leaner and he sweats more.

Exactly how much these differences _ or others, such as shoulder breadth _ matter, and in which sports, remains unclear. More recent studies have found that the male strength advantage shrinks when trained women are studied alongside trained men. But even if researchers focus on the best women athletes, they can never compensate for the advantages top male athletes garner from lifelong physical training and indoctrination and from the fact that they are drawn from a far larger pool of active sports participants.

The image of male athletic superiority is further buttressed by the fact that two of the most revered sports (in the United States, at least) _ football and basketball _ capitalize on men's natural assets. But strength is overrated as the decisive factor in most sports. In ice hockey, for example, skillful stickwork is more important than sheer strength, and short people with a low center of gravity have an edge.

It's not clear what women's sex-linked advantages are. Body fat seems helpful for cold-water swimming, and it may be for other endurance events, but some marathon swimmers and most runners are lean. Flexibility is helpful, but if men spent as much time stretching muscles as contracting them, they might be as flexible as women.

Women's relatively lower center of gravity could be an advantage in most land sports, including golf, tennis and baseball. Squash pro Karen Kelso says that being short helps her win games against men. "In most sports, it pays to bend your knees," she explains. "Small people can bend easier, with less low-back pain."

In equestrian events, it is often said that women have a better relationship with horses. People have explained the success of Susan Butcher, four-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, by saying she has a maternal way with dogs. Butcher laughs that off. "It was funny _ when I was coming in second, it was always: "Susan's never going to win, because she babies her dogs too much.' Now that I'm winning, it's: "Well, Susan wins because she takes better care of her dogs.' "

"What women lack in brute strength, they make up for in toughness," contends endurance athlete Julie Ridge. Women are tougher, she and others postulate, because they were built to endure childbirth _ "the most painful thing a human being has to go through." But even if what Ridge says is true, it's not necessarily an advantage. Victories are not, despite popular conceptions, achieved by ignoring pain. Especially not second and third victories.

We do know that physical characteristics, to whatever degree they may be sex-linked, tell only part of the story. Does the tallest, strongest, bulkiest man always win? No. Case in point: Michael Chang, 5 feet 8 and 135 pounds, won the 1989 French Open in men's tennis, defeating larger, heavier opponents.

Comparisons between women and men must be tempered further by the fact that the women athletes who rise to the top are the cream of a very small crop.

Women's participation has increased dramatically in the past two decades, but of the 5.26-million kids playing interscholastic high school sports in the United States, only 1.84-million are girls. Only about one-third of college athletes are female.

Although not known for their speed or endurance, baseball players do tend to be rather large and strong. Could women really keep up?

Back in 1931, a woman named Virne "Jackie" Mitchell, in an exhibition baseball game between the Chattanooga Lookouts and the New York Yankees, struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. More recently, in 1981, softball pitcher Kathy Arendsen of the Stratford (Conn.) Hi-Ho Brakettes struck out Reggie Jackson three times in three meetings.

A factor that sometimes limits women's performance is what sports physiologist Linda Bunker calls the "ceiling effect" of boyfriends and fathers. When a father, for instance, says, "Have fun bowling, but don't beat him," the girl, wanting to please both her father and her boyfriend, often balks.

"I was always taught never to beat the boys," says swimmer Nancy Hogshead, winner of one silver and three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics.

Sometimes, at the professional level, instead of women slowing down, men drop out, withdrawing from both the race and the romance. During the 1988 Ironman, Paula watched John Hughes, the fiance of another woman runner, Erin Baker, quit when Erin passed him. Later, Hughes, a New Zealander like Erin, said to Paul Huddle, "How did you stay in the race after Paula passed you? When I heard Erin was coming up, I just dropped."

To look at a chart marking the decrease in men's and women's world record times in many sports is to see one fairly flat line tilting gradually downhill and another plummeting as dramatically as a ski slope.

Women and men already compete equally in several arenas, among them equestrian events, archery, auto racing and horse racing. In riflery, the only coed sport at the NCAA Division I level, women won three of the four individual crowns at the 1989 and 1990 national championships. In artistic sports such as skating and gymnastics, some would argue that women's performances outwow those of their male counterparts.

Runners are catching up. Women have finished first overall in several marathons, 50- and 100-mile runs and 24-hour runs. In September 1989, Californian Ann Trason became the first woman to win an open national championship, with a national record-setting distance of 143 miles.

Even sprinters are not that far behind. In 1988, Florence Griffith Joyner's 100-meter world record of 10.64 was just .72 of a second slower than Carl Lewis' record.

Janet Evans' 1988 world records in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle would have been world records for men in 1972. Her record for the 400-meter freestyle beats Mark Spitz's 1968 world record by more than two seconds. Who knows what might have happened in the 1988 Olympics if Evans, a triple gold medal winner, had been permitted to swim her best event, the 1,500-meter freestyle? "She would have beat everyone by 25 seconds," says her coach, Bud McAllister. But it was not an Olympic event for women _ only for men.

In the long distances, women are the better swimmers. Californian Penny Dean has held the English Channel record since 1978, when she was just 13. In the 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan, Shelley Taylor-Smith won three years in a row, from 1987 through 1989. Another Californian, Lynne Cox, holds the overall records for swimming the Bering Strait and the Strait of Magellan.

In endurance cycling, the top women are closing in on the men. In the 1989 Race Across America, Susan Notorangelo, the first female finisher, placed seventh overall with a time of 9 days, 9 hours, 9 minutes _ which would have been an overall first-place time as recently as 1987.

In the triathlon, it is likely that Newby-Fraser or another woman will soon catch the top 10 men. Just a month before Newby-Fraser's victory, Erin Baker finished 11th overall in the Nice Triathlon, just one minute slower than the 1987 men's winner. "The implications of both of these outstanding performances are fascinating, if not frightening, for many men," wrote C. J. Olivares Jr., the editor of Triathlete magazine. "Will race directors finally distribute prize money equally among men and women?"

Julie Ridge, herself the world record holder of a swim in which she circled Manhattan five times in five days, predicts that even with the smaller pool of competitors and the numerous cultural disadvantages, a woman will win the Ironman by the year 2000. "I'd say sooner, but I don't want to be wrong," she adds.

Mariah Burton Nelson is former editor of Women's Sports and Fitness magazine. This article is excerpted from her book Are We Winning Yet?