People were asked to rate men and women who take part in the biathlon World Cup, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting by a team of researchers led by the University of Exeter.
It is the first study to show how male and female athletes are perceived in terms of attractiveness.
“Previous studies had found that faster Tour de France cyclists and better NFL quarterbacks are more attractive, but they ignored female sports," said lead researcher Dr Tim Fawcett.
“In the biathlon, where both sexes compete, our data show that this relationship holds for men but not for women."
Women may have evolved a preference for more athletic men because they would have been better hunters and more able to provide for their families, he added.
"This sex difference is predicted by evolutionary theories, based on the idea that in ancestral populations it was probably men who did most of the hunting," he said.
Publishing their findings in the journal Behavioural Ecology, the researchers said that sporting success is linked to something visible in the photos that women find attractive.
The study's co-author, professor Andy Radford of the University of Bristol, said: “Successful athletes might have happier, more confident expressions, and there’s also some evidence that men with wider faces are more physically dominant.
“But in our study, women did not prefer men who were smiling or had wider faces. Further work is needed to pinpoint what makes the top-performing men more attractive.”
The most attractive biatheletes were US Olympian Lowell Bailey and Czech Olympian Eva Puskarčíková, the study found.
Although a preference for more athletic men doesn’t have the same relevance in today’s society, the scientists said it wa interesting to see how sensitive people are to subtle differences in how people look and how this could be linked to success.
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