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Why women can't ski jump in the Winter Olympics

Women ski jumpers sue for the right to compete in the Vancouver Olympics and stop men from jumping if women can't.

By Staff writer / November 9, 2009

Lindsey Van (c.) set the ski jump record – for both men and women – at the Vancouver Olympic facility, but she can’t compete in the Games.

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

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Lake Placid, N.Y.; and Boston

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.

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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."

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