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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.

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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.

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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. Compounding suspicions of gender discrimination was the fact that FIS president Gian Franco Kasper told National Public Radio in 2005 that jumping was too dangerous for women, that it "seems to be not appropriate for the ladies from a medical point of view."

But Walter Sieber, a Canadian member of the IOC division that recommended not to include women's ski jumping in the 2010 Games, denies that the decision had anything to do with gender – pointing to the IOC's decision this year to include women's boxing as evidence of the IOC's true colors.

While he admits that the top women jumpers are very competitive, he maintains that there aren't enough competitors at that level to warrant an Olympic sport.

The 2009 World Championships results support that view: The women's field of 36 had a 20-point gap between top competitors and weaker ones, while the men's field of 50 competitors finished closer together.

THE BOTTOM LINE, claim both those alleging and denying sex discrimination, is the hard fact that the multibillion-dollar Olympic machine is subject to the rising pressure of commercialism.

"What matters to the IOC is: Will the event sell tickets, will it sell TV time, is it popular?" asserts Jacqueline Hansen, a runner who was a member of the lobby that won a place for the women's marathon in the 1984 Olympics.

Since then, the sway of TV has become so great that Michael Phelps swam at 6 a.m. in Beijing – prime time in the US. TV may well have played into the IOC's decision to approve women's ski cross events for the 2010 games. A sort of motocross on snow, the sport is a variation on snowboard cross – an event introduced in the 2006 Torino Games that was a hit with NBC, which paid $1.5 billion for TV rights there and in Beijing.

Olympic officials do consider TV appeal in deciding on sports, confirms Mr. Sieber. In the era of IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, in the 1990s, he says, the emphasis was "to have many sports involved," but the expanding Games became unwieldy for organizers. In the current era, the bar for new events is higher – they must be "good for TV" and "an addition that enhances the program."

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