When I first moved to Park City, Utah, in 2004, I was shocked to learn that women ski jumpers were not allowed to go to the Olympics. Heck, what happened to Title IX? But this is the Olympics, where an elite group of mostly men on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) make the rules. For some reason, they just didn’t like the idea of women ski jumping.
Oh, they had their excuses. The sport wasn’t fully developed, they said, and it didn’t include enough countries. But other sports with a smaller international presence were admitted to the games. In 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, the president of the International Ski Federation, told an NPR reporter that ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” What could he possibly mean? That flying through cold air and landing on hard ground might damage our female organs? Tell that to the astronauts. But I digress.
Over the years the IOC’s excuses have sounded increasingly hollow, old-fashioned and disingenuous, not to mention plain old sexist. But even sexists can see the light. And that’s what happened last week when the IOC ruled that women ski jumpers can participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The women who pursue this high-risk and high-flying sport–one of the original sports at the first Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924–join a sled of new sports: women’s and men’s ski halfpipe, luge relay, a figure-skating team event and the biathlon mixed relay.
After the IOC turned down women’s ski jumping for admission in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, a group of women ski jumpers brought a lawsuit charging sex discrimination. Their fight went all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court, which refused to hear an appeal, letting stand rulings that the jurisdiction of the Canadian human rights charter, which prohibits sex discrimination, did not include the IOC–Canada couldn’t force the IOC to play fair and include women.
Last month, the women jumpers demonstrated their grit at the 2011 World Cup in Norway, where athletes jumped in white-out conditions. The officials finally saw that the women have the right stuff. It didn’t hurt that the number of elite jumpers more than doubled between 2006 and 2010, from 83 to 182 athletes. The lawsuit, intense lobbying and the court of public opinion probably all contributed to the IOC decision.
Deedee Corradini, former Salt Lake City mayor and president of Women’s Ski Jumping USA, called the decision historic. “This is the first time in history that the Olympics will be gender-equal,” she told a press conference.
After watching the women ski jumpers and their long fight to win gender equality, I have my own theory on why the IOC didn’t want women to fly. Think back on your high-school physics class. Do you remember learning about gravity? A heavy object can’t fly as far as a light object. That means that a woman, lighter than a man, could fly farther. Yes, it could happen. And it has. U.S. ski jumper Lindsey Van, the 2009 world champion, set the world-record distance on the Vancouver ski jump during a practice. Yet she sat on the sidelines at the 2010 Games and watched the men compete–and attempt to break her record. Maybe the men have been afraid of being beaten at the sport they’ve kept women out of?
For more than a decade, it’s been Van’s dream to win Olympic gold. “I’m thrilled the IOC decided to add our sport,” said Van. “Personally, this means a lot to me. We’ve worked really hard as athletes fighting for our sport, so this feels like a big success.”
But sadly, 26-year-old Van, who has been jumping for half her life, failed to qualify for the finals at the recent World Cup. Now that the Olympics Games are finally a reality, the trailblazer may be too old to hold off the youngsters and win an Olympic medal. And that would be a shame.
Photo from top of the Salt Lake City Olympic ski jump hill, from Wikimedia Commons.