On Feb. 11, a 15-year fight for equality will come to an end when female ski jumpers take off for the first time in the Winter Olympics. The move should be hailed as a historic achievement for female Olympians without forgetting the decades of resistance they faced from male authority figures touting outdated notions of health.
Men’s ski jumping was one of the 16 events in the first modern Olympics in 1924. In 1991, the International Olympic Committee mandated that events going forward must be open to both men and women, excepting those that were already on the program. Female ski jumpers have pushed for inclusion since 1998, despite being used as guinea pigs to test the hills on the men’s courses.
The IOC has been careful not to explicitly state the reason understood in most circles to exclude women’s ski jumping, touting the supposed lack of participation. Yet others have been surprisingly brazen in hinging the decision upon the female sex, literally. As Gian-Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation, told NPR in 2005, “It's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
In other words, ladies, have no fear: The male heads of worldwide athletic associations are here to save your uteruses from yourselves.
The fallacy that rigorous physical activity threatens female reproduction has long been used by the IOC and other governing bodies to prevent women from competing in traditionally male sports. Participation in sports such as basketball and marathon running has historically increased when we stopped trying to protect the fragile female form and just let women play. Most recently, before the inclusion of ski jumping, Olympic equality cleared a major hurdle with the addition of women’s boxing to the program at the 2012 London Games.
In Sochi, ski jumping is perhaps the most egalitarian sport on the program. Unlike other events, in which physical differences in strength and muscle density create a disparity between the men’s and women’s competitions, long-distance ski jumping favors lightweight athletes and their ability to optimize their aerodynamics in flight. That remove most of men's biological advantages. Business Insider’s Tony Manfred compared the results from this year’s ski jumping World Cup in Lillehammer, Norway, and found that while jumping on the same course on the same day under the same conditions, the men jumped only slightly farther than the women on average, while several of the female jumpers outperformed the majority of the male field.
In fact, Japan’s Sara Takanashi would have scored high enough for silver in the men’s competition. The 17-year-old is the heavy gold-medal favorite heading into Sochi in a 30-woman field that is 10 percent American. Those representing the U.S. are three-time national champion Jessica Jerome, 26; 2013 world champion Sarah Hendrickson, 19; and women’s ski jumping pioneer and 2009 world champion Lindsey Van, 29.
For Van, her decade-long struggle is paying off, though she seems uncomfortable receiving the much-deserved credit for her efforts.
“I don’t see myself as a pioneer,” she told NBC. “I see myself as the older athlete who had to go through all of that. I got to watch the sport go from nothing to where it is now.”
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)
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