One worked two jobs to make ends meet, another sold her skis to raise money for a team coach, some slept in barns at low-budget competitions in Europe, and three showed their mettle by sweeping the gold, silver, and bronze at World Championships last year.
But today this plucky group of women ski jumpers lost their legal bid to pry open the last Olympic door shut to women.
Canada’s Supreme Court today refused to hear the women’s case, in which the skiers argued that it was against Canadian law for 2010 Olympic host Vancouver to allow men to compete in ski jumping if women were barred – which they are.
Since the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924, women have been ski jumping on hills from Norway to northern Michigan – but never as Olympians. This despite the fact that women have been known to out-jump their male counterparts; 2009 World Champion Lindsey Van flew farther than any men at the inaugural event at the 2010 Olympic venue several years ago – though she got to start somewhat higher up the ramp because women are lighter and need a longer in-run to gather enough speed.
But these women have demonstrated their prowess in their own right. The main problem, says International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, is that there aren’t enough women at that top level.
“In jumping competition, there is clearly for women two groups – there is a group of about 15 women, technically very able, jumping well. And a second group that is quite far from them,” he said at a Dec. 10 press conference. He then pointed out that while the top men are usually very competitive with each other, there can be a big drop-off between the best women and the rest of the field – a point born out by a Monitor analysis of last year’s World Championship results.
For a sense of what it feels like to be one of the top women jumpers in the world, check out this video that US athlete Jessica Jerome took while going off a ski jump in Utah. The “helmet cam” she wore captured the action soaring out over the landing hill and, on a separate jump, gave a bumpy, blur-your-vision look back at the jump tower as she sped down the ramp – ponytail flapping in the wind.
IOC official: 'Textbook' case of discrimination
The group of more than a dozen women ski jumpers who sued Vancouver’s organizing committee (known as VANOC) argues that their sport needs Olympic status to narrow the wide gap between the few top women ski jumpers and the rest of the pack. Led by former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini, who was instrumental in adding women’s bobsled and skeleton events to the 2002 Olympics in Utah, they point to the growth of those sports and others since being added to the Olympic roster. Philip Hersch of the Chicago Tribune wrote an interesting analysis of pole vaulting's evolution since 2000 that strongly supports the women's position. (Editor's note: This version was updated to correct an error about which women's events were added in 2002.)
They also say that the fact that women’s ski cross – think gravity-fueled BMX racing on snow, minus the wheels – was admitted to the Olympics in the same 2006 meeting at which women’s ski jumping was turned down for having too weak a field, shows thinly veiled discrimination. Women’s ski jumping had roughly twice the number of elite competitors as women’s ski cross at the time, though neither fully met the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requirements for being added to the Games.
So after exhausting all other channels, the women sued Vancouver’s organizing committee (known as VANOC) for implementing the IOC’s discriminatory policy – even if they had not come up with the policy. They had asked VANOC to refuse to hold the men’s competition if the women weren’t allowed to compete. While the Vancouver court that first heard their case agreed that the IOC’s policy constituted discrimination, they said VANOC was powerless to do anything about it – a decision upheld in a British Columbia appeals court after a Nov. 11-12 trial.
Anita DeFrantz, who as chair of the IOC’s Women and Sports Commission has presided over a huge increase in women's participation in the Olympics, told the Monitor last month that the ski jumpers' situation was a textbook case of discrimination that she hadn't seen in any other sport. (While ski jumping is the last Olympic discipline closed to women, there are still no canoeing events in the discipline of Canoe & Kayak.)
There is evidence to support the women’s claim that ski jumping – especially in Europe, where the men’s World Cup circuit is quite lucrative – is an old boys’ club. In 2005 Gian-Franco Kasper, head of the International Ski Federation, told NPR, "Ski jumping is just too dangerous for women. Don't forget, [the landing] it's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters to the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."
IOC 'definitely considering' jumping at 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia
Undeterred, the women jumpers whose legal bid ended today – an international group that includes athletes from Norway, Germany, Slovenia, and Canada, as well as the US – have pressed on with their careers. At a competition in Norway this weekend, two of the top three finishers were plaintiffs in the case.
Ms. Corradini vowed that the Supreme Court's decision would not halt the women's efforts.
“Although we are hugely disappointed by the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear us this time, we won’t give up. This is about human rights and discrimination. It’s a wrong that must be righted," she said. “These women are ready, they’re highly skilled athletes and given the chance, would have provided Olympic spectators with a thrilling and competitive performance in February at Whistler."