Thanks to Lindsey Van and the representatives from Women’s Ski Jumping USA for their time and information provided for this post.
At the recent Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Simon Ammann won the gold medal in both the normal and large hill events of men’s ski jumping. However, prior to the Games, neither Amman nor his fellow male jumpers held the record for distance jumped on the normal hill at Whistler Ski Jump. That record was held by a woman, American Lindsey Van, who was not allowed to compete.
An Olympic event since the first Winter Games in 1924, ski jumping is synonymous with the Winter Olympics. Its athletes have amazed us as over the years we have watched them race down hills and vault into the air, briefly soaring over snowy landscape before somehow gracefully landing on two skis. Several weeks ago when I was researching ski jumping for a post, I realized that there was no women’s ski jumping at the Olympics, and puzzled by this, I turned to Google and was shocked at what I found: Women ski jumpers are being excluded from Olympic competition. In fact, there is an ongoing battle between skilled female athletes and a large powerful organization which refuses them both the right and privilege of competing. Weighing both sides, I decided to turn to the one man who would have the answer: Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern-Day Olympics. But first, here’s a recap of the debate.
Women have been ski jumping almost as long as men. Although women were not included in the first Winter Olympics with male ski jumpers, most sports in the early 20th Century weren’t open to women. So women
participated in their own competitions, something they continued to do throughout the decades until finally, in 1998, two important milestones occurred:
- The FIS (International Ski Federation) sanctioned the first ever women’s ski jumping grand prix series.
- Women ski jumpers made their first formal request to the IOC to be included in the Olympics.
The grand prix series has continued to flourish, but women ski jumpers being allowed to compete in the Winter Olympics is a different story. The 1998 request for admittance to the Olympics and every attempt since have been answered with a resounding “no.” In true Olympic spirit, the women have continued to press forward, even taking their case to the British Columbia Supreme Court prior to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Again they were turned away. However, they have vowed to continue skiing and fighting for a place in Olympic competition. Their struggle is all the more inspiring given the fact that recently the US women’s ski jump team was dropped by its main sponsor, the US Ski & Snowboard Association. The lack of such a large sponsor means they have been forced to raise money through auctions and other fundraisers. (For more information on how you can help, click here.)
There has been much debate over why the sport has not been included in the Olympics. Many suggest that it is gender discrimination, where once again, as with so many other sports, the abilities and rights of females are being denied because of gender. This is a logical conclusion, as women have always faced an uphill battle to earn respect and acceptance in sports. This argument is all the more plausible given the statement by FIS president and IOC member Gian Franco Kasper, who said that ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” With statements like these, women such as Billie Jean King and Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee must be shaking their heads, wondering if their own sacrifices and accomplishments were in vain. “We want the Olympics, because our sport is ready to be there, and every other sport in the Olympics has gender equity, except for Ski Jumping,” commented Lindsey Van in a recent correspondence I had with her. “Part of the Olympic Charter states promotion of women in sport, so we are just trying to make that happen.”
In 2008, Rosie DeManno of Toronto’s The Star wrote, “It is a privilege, not a right, to be conferred with Olympic status.” I can agree with Ms. DeManno that not every sport should be added to the Olympics just to appease those claiming violation of equal rights. However, if athletes such as female ski jumpers have proven themselves worthy of being at the Olympics, then isn’t it their right to participate alongside their male counterparts?
The “X Factor”?
What is also quite plausible is that a new trend in the Olympics is prohibiting women ski jumpers from competing in the Olympics. It’s what I refer to as the “X factor,” the emphasis of adding extreme sports to the Olympic Games. These are sports which were once only seen at the ESPN X-Games but are now Olympic sports, such as beach volleyball, snowboarding, BMX racing, ski cross, and most recently, rock climbing. NBC has made it very apparent that it favors these sports, and both beach volleyball and snowboarding were heavily broadcast during the 2008 and 2010 Olympics, with other sports getting much less coverage or none at all. The ratings and popularity of these sports are high among the younger generation, who seem to favor more sports that are “sexy” or “hot,” which in turn affects revenue. This is unfortunate, as sports which have stood the test of time, being competed or played for decades or even centuries are being pushed aside.
The IOC Criteria and Its Contradiction
IOC President Jacques Rogge has maintained the IOC’s decision not to include women’s ski jumping is not gender biased, but rather reflective of it not having reached “the necessary technical criteria” to have a place in the Olympic Games. IOC requires that for any sport to be included in the Olympics, it must be “widely practiced around the world, that is, the number of countries that compete in a given sport is the indicator of the sport’s prevalence.”
I understand this important criteria and respect the IOC installing certain requirements. Otherwise, the Olympic Games could easily become a mockery, losing much of its inherent prestige. Yet without a presence in the Winter Olympics, how can some sports—particularly Winter sports—thrive and advance? Women’s ice hockey was quickly added to the Olympics in 1998, and during the Vancouver Games, Rogge warned that women’s ice hockey might be removed if it did not further develop internationally as a widely practiced sport. Yet such a statement seems contradictory when one considers many of the existing Olympic sports. Unlike the more popular snowboarding, football, baseball, and tennis, disciplines such as bobsled, Nordic-combined, and discus depend on the Olympics for exposure, which in turn helps further develop the sport. A presence in the Olympics often means media coverage, which then leads to corporate sponsorship and attracting young, aspiring champions. Does the IOC really think that American men or women were clamoring to become a bobsledder before seeing Steven Holcomb? Or, that in Great Britain, young people were aware of what skeleton was prior to Amy Williams winning gold?
Recently I corresponded with the WSJ-USA, Women’s Ski Jumping USA (to read the full interview, click here), which has ample proof that women’s ski jumping has developed more than sufficiently over the years, and that there is blatant contradiction in how the IOC interprets its criteria. “The contradiction is in the numbers and how the IOC decides who gets in,” says Whitney Childers, a spokesperson for the WSJ-USA. “. . . in 2006, when the International Skiing Federation (the sport’s governing body) voted 114-1 to recommend their inclusion in the Olympics, the IOC turned the women down for 2010. At that time, 83 women ski jumpers from 14 nations were jumping at the elite level. That same year, the IOC voted to accept skier cross, a totally new sport, which had just 30 female skiers from 11 nations competing at the elite level. . . . The numbers don’t make sense.”
The lack of inclusion is all the more heartbreaking when one considers the sacrifices current female jumpers are making. When I corresponded with Lindsey Van, here is how she described both her arduous training regimen as well as the personal sacrifices she is making: “I have been training year round for 15 years, 6 days a week, anywhere from 3-8 hours a day. We do lots of plyometrics, weights, running, coordination, balance, jumping, and lots of other cross training. The lack of sponsorship makes making all the trainings difficult. I have a job, random jobs, and I am trying to go to school, so all of that on top of training is a tough schedule.” You see, without Olympic Status, there is little sponsorship available, and athletes like Van are forced to work multiple jobs to not only afford necessities such as food and shelter, but still try to pay for travel expenses to competitions and the fees for coaching.
WWCD? (What Would Coubertin Do?)
Aside from determining whether the exclusion is sexist, money-driven, and justified, there is an easy way of determining whether women ski jumpers should be allowed to compete: turn to the words of Pierrre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern-Day Olympics. I decided to read through some of his speeches and writings in hope of ascertaining what he would do if he were alive. Here is what I found:
“All sports for all people.”
“All sports must be treated on the basis of equality.”
“….I ask for only one thing: sporting loyalty.”
“….for the good of a humanity, always more enthusiastic, more courageous, and more pure.”
Isn’t it obvious, then, what Coubertin would do? He believed that sports should be for all people not excluded to certain genders and not a country club for only those who compete in more financially lucrative sports. Coubertin asked for “sporting loyalty.” Is it loyalty to sport when the IOC has repeatedly turned away female jumpers who have proven themselves to be an organized group with a wide international field of competitors, and seen an increasing popularity over several decades? How can the IOC endorse Coubertin’s plea of “for the good of humanity” and “always more enthusiastic” when it denies these women the right to compete but admits other sports which have not proven themselves as much? Finally, I leave one statement of Coubertin’s as my conclusion, for it needs no explanation or interpretation:
“Sport is part of every man and every woman’s heritage and its absence can never be compensated for.”
For more information on how you can help women’s ski jumping and WSJ-USA, click here.
Swifter, Higher, Stronger.