Why Women Can't Ski Jump in the Winter Olympics

Article excerpt

Unless a Canadian court decides otherwise, the ski jumper with the longest flight on record at Vancouver's Olympic facility will not attend the winter Games in February.

She is not allowed to compete.

Olympic ski jumping is a men's-only domain. Since the first winter Games in 1924, men have been swooping down snowy ramps at 55 m.p.h. and springing into flight - human rockets hurtling chin- first, hands thrown behind, and skis angled forward. With nothing but speed and their skis to aid them, they fly the length of a football field or farther - a feat of technical genius disguised in balletic grace.

But women can do it, too - the best often flying as far as men.

With women now included in such formerly all-male Olympic events as boxing, wrestling, bobsleigh, and luge, the last Olympic door closed to women is ski jumping.

But American ski jumper Lindsey Van - who set the record on the 90-meter jump when the Olympic venue opened in Vancouver, British Columbia, last year and is the reigning world champion - hasn't given up on prying that door open. It's a logical step for the 24- year-old, who, since age 7, has been soaring over Earth's mundane limits on what is possible.

She and more than a dozen other women jumpers from Slovenia to Norway hope to legally force the addition of women's jumping before the Games open Feb. 12. Their lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) contends that not allowing women to jump for gold is a form of discrimination under Canadian laws that prohibit gender discrimination in government activities.

A Canadian judge, last summer, agreed: It is discrimination.

But her ruling concluded that while VANOC is subject to those antidiscrimination laws, it can't control the events - that's the domain of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC voted in 2006 against including women's ski jumping in 2010 because it deemed there weren't enough high-level women to create competition worthy of the Olympics. Because the IOC isn't bound by Canadian law, the judge ruled, Canada is powerless to change the program.

So the jumpers' appeal asks Canada to refuse to hold the men's event unless both genders can compete.

When the appeal is heard Nov. 12 and 13, it will highlight not just women's battle to wipe out the last vestige of an old-boys- club Olympic culture, but also competing demands on the Olympic ideal:

* Allowing athletes to pursue success on the most visible world stage.

* Broadening the appeal of the Games among Gen-Xers interested in more extreme sports while keeping costs manageable.

* Satisfying TV, a key sponsor.

"IT'S A TEXTBOOK CASE OF DISCRIMINATION," says Anita DeFrantz, chair of the IOC's Women and Sports Commission. "This group of athletes is being told that they're not good enough, that there aren't enough women in the top level.... That's never been an issue before."

The IOC defends its position as preservation of the Olympic standard, saying the top women jumpers don't deserve the same gold that is awarded to figure skaters and alpine skiers who have risen to the top of far larger fields.

But the IOC's recent record of admitting both women's events (see chart) and disciplines with weak fields - such as bobsleigh and ski cross - suggests the issue is not as clear-cut as either side asserts.

More than 80 years after men's ski jumping debuted as one of six original Olympic sports, the International Ski Federation (FIS) - which stages ski events at the Olympics - voted in 2006 to recommend women's jumping for inclusion in the 2010 Games. The federation endorsed women's ski cross over ski jumping. Neither sport fully met the IOC criteria for inclusion. The IOC only approved ski cross, which had the required two world championships but less than half as many elite women as ski jumping. Men's ski jumping doesn't meet the criteria either, but was grandfathered in. …