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Why it's time to let ladies fly

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Matt Slater | 16:25 UK time, Monday, 2 March 2009

As far as I am concerned, anybody who is willing to stand on two long planks and throw himself or herself down an icy slope, wearing only a helmet and a cat suit for protection, deserves a medal - an Olympic one if they are especially good at it.

Sadly, that reward is only open to "himself" at the moment and the world's finest female ski jumpers will probably not be at the Winter Olympics next year.

That is a shame as the current record-holder for the hill the men will be using at Whistler is called Lindsey, and she has just become her sport's first ever women's world champion.

It is also a shame because ski jumping, an Olympic sport since 1924, is now the only sport on the winter schedule to exclude women.

Germany's Urike Graessler , Lindsey Van of the US and Norwegian Anette Sagen show off their historic medals

I say "probably" because Lindsey Van and nine other flying females go to the British Columbia Supreme Court on 20 April to argue that Vancouver 2010's organising committee (Vanoc) is violating Canadian law by not inviting them to the Games.

Victory there would be perhaps the most significant result of the 24-year-old American's career and a giant leap forward for women's Olympic sport.

But before we start burning sports bras, I should explain how Van versus Vanoc came about, because while the technicalities of ski jumping are wasted on me (I couldn't stay upright when I tried it on a Wii) the story of why women's ski jumping is not already in the Olympics is an all-too familiar tale of broken promises, muddled thinking and old-fashioned chauvinism.

Gung-ho skiing types have been jumping for centuries, although it took until the 19th century for people to start organising competitions. But having built the hill, the people came - it was no surprise when ski jumping was included in the nine-sport programme of the first Winter Games.

It should also surprise nobody that ski jumping in Chamonix was a men-only event, as the few women willing/allowed to try the sport at this time were expected to do so with a man holding their hand. After you, dear.

Not a great deal changed for the next 50 years or so. Lots of Finns and Norwegians won Olympic and World titles but the hill remained a female-free zone.

This medieval state of affairs could not, however, last forever - after all, a mark of modern society is that women have just as much right to endanger themselves as men, so the sisters started ski jumping.

By the 1990s, women ski jumpers felt ready to ask for international and Olympic recognition. Officialdom, however, was not ready for them.

Ignored by the sport's authorities - the instinctively conservative and predominately male International Ski Federation (FIS) - they got nowhere with the Olympic bigwigs - the instinctively conservative and predominately male International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Not sanctioned to compete at international level, the women were ignored by the IOC when they asked to join the fun at Nagano in 1998, Salt Lake City in 2002 and Turin in 2006.

But their arguments - the injury risk is no greater for women than men, women can jump just as well as men as it is about technique not power, the sport has established itself internationally, it's the 21st century you sexist pigs - were slowly getting through.

In 2004, the FIS finally agreed to develop women's ski jumping with a Continental Cup for the elite and a Junior World Championships for the next generation.

All this despite FIS boss Gian-Franco Kaspar, who in 2005 likened the sport to jumping off two-metre-high roofs a thousand times a year, which "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view".

Thankfully, the women took his advice about not repeatedly leaping off roofs and stuck to ski jumping. There are now 130 registered competitors from 16 nations and this season's Continental Cup comprised 25 events in eight different countries.

A more important decision came in 2006, when the FIS agreed to let women jumpers join the men at the 2009 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic.

Lindsey Van in action at the 2009 World Championships

And at the same meeting, delegates voted 114-1 to petition the IOC to admit women's ski jumping to the Vancouver 2010 programme. The sole dissenting voice came from a Swiss delegate: Switzerland being the home of the FIS, the IOC and Kaspar.

So, with the governing body now on board, more women competing from more countries, and the IOC publicly committed to "gender equity", confirmation of a first Olympic women's ski jumping event in Vancouver was a given, right?

Erm, no.

The short version of what happened at the IOC's executive board meeting in November 2006 is that women's ski jumping (along with new wheezes like the biathlon mixed relay and mixed doubles curling) failed to make the cut, while ski cross (what we used to call a Chinese downhill on my school skiing trips) did.

The long, and admittedly partisan, version of what happened at that Kuwait meeting is an epic of sporting realpolitik, commercialism and farce.

According to an official at Women's Ski Jumping USA (WSJUSA), the Utah-based group that is carrying the fight for Olympic inclusion, some IOC members voted according to their home nation's medal chances, while others juggled Olympic ideals with the more pressing concerns of broadcasters and sponsors.

This is the reason, the official claimed, the X Games favourite ski cross will be making its Olympic debut - for men and women - in 2010 and not women's ski jumping.

IOC president Jacques Rogge has dismissed the conspiracy theories, stating more than once that women's ski jumping will have to wait until there are more competitors at the elite level. To include the event too soon would "dilute" the value of Olympic medals.

This sounds reasonable until the WSJUSA points out there are only 30 elite female competitors from 11 nations in ski cross, while the numbers for snowboard cross are 34 and 10, and for women's bobsleigh 26 and 13.

Last season, 99 women ski jumpers, representing 15 countries, took part in top-flight FIS competition. This season, 35 women from nine nations have achieved top-10 finishes. This is comparable to the depth of competition on the men's circuit.

Which brings me back to Van, who fought back from a career-threatening knee injury to claim her world title, and her nine fellow plaintiffs.

Vanoc's position is that it would love to stage a women's ski jumping competition, and could still do so, but it is not Vanoc's call. The IOC decides the events programme.

The IOC says it is guided on these matters by the relevant international federation.

And the FIS says don't look at us, haven't we just staged the first ever world championships?

Faced with this impenetrable triangle of blame-shifting, the women ski jumpers have been forced to challenge Vanoc on the basis it is has received public money and should therefore operate under Canadian law.

As Ross Clark, the lawyer representing the group, said: "The IOC may be free to discriminate: Vanoc, by spending public funds, is not."

So the Olympic hopes of Van, her talented US team-mates and their rivals from across the world hinge on a lawyer's ability to persuade a court that Vanoc is, in effect, a government department.

A WSJUSA billboard in Vancouver last year

If Clark loses that argument Van will be sat at home next February watching the men take on her Whistler record. That can't be right, can it?

"I would feel kind of lost and a little bit betrayed," she told me when I asked how she would feel about missing out. "It will hurt if we're not there, for sure."

I think it will hurt Vancouver 2010 and the Olympic movement too.

The IOC talks a good game on equality but as our Olympics minister Tessa Jowell has just pointed out, the rhetoric does not match up to the reality.

At last summer's Olympics were there 165 medal events for men and 127 for women, who made up just 42% of the total athlete population in Beijing. At the last Winter Olympics in Turin, the athlete split was 62/38.

Jowell's comments provoked predictable headlines about women's boxing and synchronised swimming for blokes but she had a good point to make.

You can argue about the merits of an Olympic women's Greco-Roman wrestling competition but can anybody tell me why female canoeists, rowers, shooters and track cyclists should have fewer medal opportunities than their male counterparts?

The world's best women ski jumpers will get their day in court next month and hopefully they will be given the chance to ask a similar question, because I don't think there is a defensible answer.

I'll leave the last word to Van.

"Our sport is ready and people need to realise that. We didn't start jumping yesterday, we've been jumping for years."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I'm absolutely with the ladies on this one. I cannot think of any good reason why a sane person would want to ski down a slope that long and fly through the air for that length of time - but if they can, then good luck to them. I'd even pay to see it, so why keep them out?

  • Comment number 2.

    It's clear that the IOC's Gian-Franco Kasper will never let the the women jump.

    Here's what he said last week
    =======================
    FIS President Gian-Franco Kasper has voiced his opposition against a ladies team jumping competition at the 2011 World Championships - and also criticized last week's premiere event in Liberec. "It is not meant to be a children's sport. Having 13-year-olds as main attractions like in gymnastics is not what we want. I would prefer an age limit of 15 or 16 years", Kasper told the "Sport-Informations-Dienst" (sid) in Liberec.
    =======================
    Kasper said this to www.berkutschi.com
    BUT you can only find it in the google cache!

    So great - he even manages to insult the female gymnasts too! It's clear this is total discrimination.

  • Comment number 3.

    The IOC is responsible for ensuring their organization complies with their charter. They cannot use different standards to determine which sports get in and which ones don't. Inclusion on the programme should not be based on revenue potential or as IOC member Dick Pound says "cache". The ironic thing is that this is NOT a new sport - it is just a women's event of a sport which has been in the Olympics since the beginning. Excuses that there are not enough women or that they are not developed enough is more anti-leadership from the good old boys at the FIS and IOC. Compare the numbers to skier cross, skeleton, and bobsleigh. Why are the Olympic sponsors putting up with this? LET THEM JUMP IN 2010!

  • Comment number 4.

    Fantastic! Go lady ski jumpers! You should be in the Olympics in 2010. There are enough of you, the world will enjoy watching you, great athletes that you are!

    Check out this new youtube video about women's ski jumping

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13sVqRWLW6s

  • Comment number 5.

    I am fully in favour of equality.

    The best way to achieve this would be to kick out the men's ski jumping event. It's like watching paint dry, but with style marks.

  • Comment number 6.

    I watched the women's ski jumping last weekend on Eurosport, and would like to congratulate the commentator (David Goldstrom) for never once being patronising, and for retaining his normal enthusiasm for the sport. To me, as a spectator and ski jumping enthusiast, there is no reason why women should be excluded from the Olympics. They jump just as well as, if not better than, the men. Lindsey Van herself would have come in the top 10 of the men's competition on the same size hill. My only complaint is that the FIS only let them complete on the small hills: let them jump the big hills, let them ski-fly!
    (oh and while I'm on, please let us watch this sport on the BBC!)

  • Comment number 7.

    Looking forward to the outcome of the hearing. Surely VANOC which won the 2010 bid partly on its approach to inclusivity, diversity etc etc do not have a leg to stand on.

    And the IOC saying there arent enough elite athletes just doesn't wash - what has happened to the legendary Olympic spirit!!? This is the 21st Century remember!

    I'm with you all the way Lindsey and fellow competitors, good luck, and I hope I get to watch you compete in what should be a fantastic Winter Olympics.

  • Comment number 8.

    While I am also in favour in equality, you people have to realise that being part of the Olympics IS NOT BY RIGHT!!!! Your sport has to be admitted. Regardless of whether the mens sport is there or not, you cannot claim inequality just because the IOC has refused to admit them. It is the IOC's perogative to admit them or not and if the IOC says no, then it's no. It's not a question of whether it's fair or not. Even you have to admit that Matt

  • Comment number 9.

    I fully endorse the concept of including women's ski jumping into the olympics, and world championships. There is absolutely no earthly reason why women should not be able to take part and it seems grossly unfair that the riches (and there are riches for the top flight in the men's game) to be gained in the sport should not be available to both sexes.

    It's not really right to compare mens distances with women's. The women would probably have used a higher start gate, giving higher in-run speed - but that in no way detracts from either their ability or their performance.

    Prawnheed #5: If you took the time to even begin to understand the technicalities of Ski-Jumping - timing off the table, transition to the correct flight attitude, and then landing a good - therefore safe telemark you might begin to realise that it is somewhat more skillful than painting the skirting board, and rather less boring than watching said paint job dry! Can I recommend watching an event with David Goldstrom's commentary on Eurosport - or if you can speak German, then view and listen to the expert comments of Dieter Thoma or Jens Weissflog on ARD or ZDF.

  • Comment number 10.

    zerozeroseveng007

    What a lot of nonsense. That just shows that you know nothing about inequality and from the figures above there is clearly enough strength in depth relative to other sports in the Winter Olympics to have womens ski jumping admitted. If you take your argument to its logical conclusion then the male dominated world of the IOC could simply make all female sports wait for inclusion, because they have to wait for the IOC's perogative to invite them in. The IOC have to abide by some standard guidelines on this and the case is simple, female ski jumping should have been allowed in years ago.

  • Comment number 11.

    Enjoyable article thanks Matt.

    I'll be cheering the women on in this fight, once again the IOC are at their hypocritical best here. Athletes and competitors can get banned for drug offences and come back a few years later to compete again at the Olympics yet women aren't allowed to compete in all the same sports as men. As you say the ski jumping and track cycling being 2 of the main examples.

    The IOC, just like most governing bodies that are made up of representatives from national bodies, look after their own interests first and foremost. Its the old 'you scratch my back and i'll scratch yours' principle. As noted above countries are hardly going to vote in favour of including an event if their country hasn't got a hope of winning a medal in it. They'd rather try to get something included that their country has a chance of success in. Surely that isn't what the Olympics is about.

    Whatever happened to the old ideals of fair play and its the taking part that's important? The Olympics is supposed to be open to all but due to the sexist and outdated attitudes of the fogies in charge the Olympics is closed to this elite group of sportswomen. Its sad and pathetic but what's worse is its not all that surprising.

  • Comment number 12.

    Afternoon all, thanks for reading and commenting, here are a few replies from me:

    paksta, streetcar, happySKIFAN and poppyRubyrun, I think we're all in agreement. We can argue if it's long overdue or not but I don't think there is much doubt that the time is right to let the women in. It just doesn't sit right in the 21st century, and I think it reflects poorly on Vanoc, who I think have got a lot right in terms of guiding principles, "message" and legacy ambitions.

    I understand Vanoc's argument that it's the IOC's show and they decide what goes in it but I think that is hugely underestimating the influence a host committee has these days. With growing concerns about the wisdom of bidding for Games (particularly in the current economic climate), the last thing the IOC wants to do now is to be seen as aloof, out-of-touch, dictatorial and so on. As soon as a host city signs on the dotted line it becomes very powerful (they're the ones shelling out/taking all the media flak)...for those seven years the hosts effectively own the Games and you know what they say about ownership and the law. This is a point former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini makes quite forcibly. She was a big factor in SLC getting the 2002 Games and now campaigns to get women's ski jumping into the Olympic programme. She thinks Vancouver has a lot more sway with the IOC than it is letting on.

    prawnheed, fair enough, I can't say I'm a huge fan of the sport either. But I could probably say the same about half of the sports on the winter and summer programmes, particularly in terms of their appeal to spectators. You make a good point about the style marks, though. I have a bit of thing about any sport that has a subjective element to its scoring system. As I said in the blog, I'm not an expert on ski jumping at all so I can't work out why the sport even needs a style section. Can anybody who knows more about it tell me why the medals can't just be handed out on the basis of who jumps furthest?

    zerozeroseven007, you're right, inclusion in the OG is by no means a right...and it is the IOC's prerogative. That is why the IOC was probably right to say no to women's ski jumping the first few times the question was asked. But now? No. The IOC is on record about wanting to promote women's sport and is supposed to be encouraging "gender equity" at the Games. OK, the dilution of medals is obviously an issue but where is the consistency? I've pointed out a few other sports with relatively limited female talent pools (and I could make the same point about a few summer OG sports): why are they "co-ed" but not ski jumping? I also think there is a more fundamental issue at stake here, even in "liberal" western democracies women's sport is sidelined and undervalued. The drop-off rates for girls giving up sport in this country are ludicrous, and perhaps the biggest reason for this is a lack of female role models. I think this is the debate Jowell was trying to instigate. To be honest, I think the IOC should worry less about diluting medals (the male medal-winners will get more press coverage/sponsorship love for years to come and there are already huge imbalances between the relative merits of Olympic medals from sport to sport) and worry more about using sport to set society a good example.

    And princessbonzai, I can't make any promises about extra BBC coverage for the sport but I'm sure our cameras will be in Whister next Feb to film the Olympic comp...let's hope Van and co are there too.

  • Comment number 13.

    Not to take anything away from Lindsay Van but only third tier male competitors have jumped on the new HS 106m Hill so far.

    Female ski jumpers will compete at future Olympics just not in Vancouver. It's too early. The FIS World Championships in Liberec last week were the first ever for the women ski jumpers. You don't admit a discipline to the Olympics when there haven't even been World Championships. But there has been incredible growth in this sport (both in quantity and quality) over the last couple of years, so I'm pretty sure that they will get a chance at future Olympics.

  • Comment number 14.

    Fair enough, mcschenk, re the Whistler hill, as I said before, I'm no expert on the sport.

    But I've been told that the women were getting pretty close to the men's best efforts in practice in Liberec only to have their run-ins mysteriously adjusted for the competition jumps.

    I love a conspiracy theory!!!

    But on a more serious note, your point about the world championships is an interesting one. There WAS an IOC rule about no sports getting into the Games until they had staged two world champs but that rule has been scrapped and it was never religiously adhered to in the first place. The women's marathon, for example, got into the Games in '84 without the requisite worlds. And women's ski jumping should have been invited to the world championships by FIS before this year....but then with the likes of Kaspar in charge (see #2) we shouldn't really be surprised by that.

    You might be right, though. Over to you Sochi?

  • Comment number 15.

    Matt, I'm not sure who told you this about Liberec but I don't think you can/should compare men and women efforts. Women ski jumpers flew almost as far as the men but with far longer inrun (Gate 24 for the women compared to Gate 14 for the men) and at a lot higher speed (difference of 3,5 km/h - that's a world in ski-jumping). In this sport it all comes down to the length of the inrun (and therefor the speed). Top jumpers can fly just as far with a lot less speed, so they force the jury to lower the length of the inrun.
    This doesn't say anything about the quality of women ski jumping just like I hope that no one would disrespect Paula Radcliffe's effort just because she is 11 minutes slower than Haile Gebrselassie in her marathon.

    I'm with you on Gianfranco Kaspar and the FIS. What is it with old Swiss men and big sports federations?

  • Comment number 16.

  • Comment number 17.

    Matt: Your question regarding the "style" marks and their purpose is a good one.

    I believe that the point of them is, as much as anything, to improve the safety of the sport.

    To take the telemark landing, which, if it not secured, can lead to a maximum deduction of 4 points (25% of the total mark); this is the safest way to land. Landing "two-footed", or essentially hitting the ground hard with legs together will eventually lead to back problems. Moreover, without the style marks jumpers may be encouraged to go that ectra metre or two, and fall badly on landing. the style maks therefore add discipline to the way in which a jump is performed.

    Because, of the 5 marks, the highest and lowest are cancelled the marking tends to be fair, and it's very rare that even with the style marks, a winning jumper actually jumps a shorter aggregate distance over two competition jumps than he / she who takes second place.

    True ski jumping fans don't watch to see jumpers fall - a bad accident is sickening, and thankfully rare. I think this sets us apart from motorsport fans, many of whom seem to watch to see bad accidents, though I doubt they wish the victims any harm.

  • Comment number 18.

    If the object of style marks is safety then why not just have the concept of "legal" (ie safe) jumps and "illegal" (ie unsafe) jumps. Football does not award style marks for tackles - they are fouls or not.

    Once you introduce subjective marking systems like this you:

    a) have alienated the passing spectator who find it hard to judge who has won,

    b) introduce a much greater possibility of bias and corruption,

    c) remove any possibility for meaningful records and having them broken.

    Without wanting to denigrate the activity - I once stood at the top of a ski jump and am certain I do not have the guts or skill to do it - I would remove it, along with many other events, from the Olympics.

    The Olympics (both) are already so bloated that only a few select cities can host them and so hard to organise that the Olympic movement has very little to do with sport and everything to do with finance and politics - and we know where that leads. A much smaller Olympic games that stuck to the idea of being the pinnacle of achievement for sports that are fully and exclusively embracing the Olympic motto would benefit everyone.

    Personally, I would get rid of all sports that do not have the following characteristics:

    1) The competitors are tired afterwards (and fat people being tired after a round of golf doesn't count).

    2) It should be obvious to the layman who won and whether a record has been broken (so the result should be expressed as a simple distance, time, count or weight).

    3) Equipment should not be very important and should be available in the local shop (so no fancy sailing boats and stuff).

    4) It should be obvious to the layman how (and even why) to get good at it. (Running fast is clearly an advantage if being pursued by a hungry Tiger and confers the same advantage in the 400m. Similar evolutionary benefits can be inferred in being able to leap or swim fast over a stream etc)

    That leaves most human powered races (running, swimming, skating, skiing and maybe even rowing and cycling); throwing contests and jumping contests.

    With some simple improvements some other very skillful activities could also qualify. Ski jumping would be one of these (just see who can jump the furthest!). Gymnastics could be turned into a real sport - think rope climbing races etc.

    Tschuss.

  • Comment number 19.

    These Ladies have worked too hard and come too far to be "Shut-Down" due US Ski Team and IOC "Funding Issues." When people act shady they don't like their actions displayed in the light of day. This issue needs to stay on the National and International media "Front Burner." Every time the IOC talks about "Equality" some one needs to be there to bring this issue up. Eight to Ten feet and throwing.....Aloha

  • Comment number 20.

    PrawnHeed: If you follow ski-jumping then pretty soon even as a non partipating armchair viewer you get a feel for what the judges are looking for, and if you are sad enough to score the jumps yourself you will come up with pretty much the same marks as the majority of the judges, so I don't believe it is so subjective, as for example, Figure Skating where 100% of the marking is subjective.

    As regarding the wider issue of the number of "sports" in the olympics I am with you 100%! Anything that relies 100% on subjective marking should be out, along with team games (ice hockey, football, field hockey etc). Also sports such as bobsleigh - which I really enjoy - and others where the technology of the equipment is a major factor in who wins and who loses should be questioned.

    The problem is that take all that list out and the UK medals haul at the winter olympics at least, would be decimated!!

  • Comment number 21.

    ATNotts: Why should team sports be out of the Olmpics?

  • Comment number 22.

    I have always thought of the olympics as being "higher, longer, faster" - a personal, rather than a team challenge - thats why in my opinion team games which are decided by goals, baskets or whatever don't fit confortably into this criteria. Just my personal opinion.

 

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