PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — They were the Cinderella story of the Sochi Olympics, the women ski jumpers who were finally allowed to compete in the Games after a years-long struggle for equality. They had survived a court battle, proved their athletic prowess and knocked back endless excuses for why they couldn’t compete — including the suggestion that their reproductive organs might somehow be obliterated upon landing.
And yet four years later, amid the seismic cultural revolution in women’s rights, women ski jumpers at the Pyeongchang Olympics still find themselves fighting for parity. While the women are permitted to compete in one event — the normal hill — the men get three: the normal hill, the large hill and a team event.
“It’s like, ‘Here, we’ll give you a little piece,’ and then, ‘Go away, leave us alone,’” says Lindsey Van, the now-retired American ski jumper who helped lead a discrimination lawsuit to get women jumpers into the Games. “I still think that it’s an old boys’ club.”
In many ways, the fight for parity in ski jumping is emblematic of women’s fight for equal treatment across the Olympics: a process both plodding and frustrating to elite athletes repeatedly forced to prove they are worthy of competing at the top.
“Sports belongs to all humanity,” says International Olympic Committee Vice President Anita DeFrantz, who has waged a decades-long effort to boost gender equality in the Olympics. “There’s no reason to exclude women from any sport.”
The IOC has indeed boosted opportunities for women and is aiming for an equal number of male and female competitors by 2020. Yet gender equality remains elusive. Just four of the IOC’s 15 executive board members are women.
At Pyeongchang, women have six fewer medal events than men. In several sports, women are limited to shorter courses; In speed skating, for example, the longest course for men is 10,000 meters. For women, it’s just 5,000 meters.
And though many women ski jumpers have trained for years on the large hill, they are relegated at Pyeongchang to the smaller hill. Meanwhile, there are zero events for women in ski jumping’s sister sport, Nordic combined.
The disparities, DeFrantz says, are “absolutely illogical.”
DeFrantz won a bronze medal in rowing at the 1976 Olympics, the first year women rowers competed at the Games. At the time, the women were limited to a 1,000 meter course, while the men raced 2,000 meters — even though the women were trained to race 2,000. Women weren’t permitted to race the same distance as men until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
Why were women shut out of the longer course?
“I don’t know. It was all men who made the decision,” DeFrantz says. “And sadly, that continues in some sports. And it’s just time for them, if not the women in the sport, to say ‘OK, time’s up. We can do this.’”
THE FALLACY OF FRAGILITY
The fallacy that women are too fragile for sports has existed since the dawn of the Games. In 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, stated: “No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.”
Though science has debunked that notion over the centuries, such an excuse was used to keep women out of the Olympic marathon until 1984. And it played a role in the ski jumping battle.
In 1991, the IOC ruled that both women and men must be allowed to participate in all future Olympic sports. But sports that existed prior to 1991 — including ski jumping — were exempt.
Women jumpers began petitioning to join the Winter Olympics in 1998. The reasons they were given as to why they couldn’t were, at times, ludicrous.
“Don’t forget, 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,” International Ski Federation president Gian Franco Kasper said in a 2005 interview with National Public Radio.
In 2006, the IOC said there weren’t enough women jumpers from enough countries competing internationally to justify an Olympic event. At the time, though, there were more women from more countries competing internationally in ski jumping than in several other women’s Olympic sports.
Besides, the women argued, if the IOC allowed them to compete, more women would be motivated to take up the sport.
Many were left wondering if it all came down to a case of machismo.
“It was the original extreme sport,” Van says. “And so if you all of a sudden add women to it, is it as extreme?”
Laura Hills, an expert in gender inequalities in sport at Brunel University London, says while few would admit it publicly, some still see sports as a man’s domain.
“There does seem to be a fear that if women do all the same things, then men lose some of their prestige and power,” Hills says. “It’s kind a male badge of honor, isn’t it? As in, where do men go from there?”
NEXT STOP: COURT
Van and the other women jumpers were wondering where they could go themselves. The answer, they decided, was to court.
In 2008, Van and a group of women jumpers from five countries sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the right to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Games.
While their male peers got to focus on training, the women arranged court dates and media interviews about sexism around their practice time. American jumper Jessica Jerome remembers being one week away from a competition in Europe and having to squeeze in a court appearance.
“I was in a hotel room in Vancouver putting makeup on and a collared shirt so I could go sit in a courtroom and I was pissed,” Jerome says. “All I want to do is just be an athlete, and I was envious of everybody else who never had to deal with that. All they ever had to do was train hard and work hard and focus on their own performance … they had this path already set up. And we didn’t.”
Though the lawsuit ultimately failed, the IOC finally agreed amid an avalanche of negative publicity to add one women’s ski jumping event — the normal hill — to the Sochi program.
The women had hoped to be allowed to compete in all three jumping events by Pyeongchang. That has not happened.
As for Nordic combined, a blend of ski jumping and cross-country, those fighting for gender equality have welcomed some recent developments: Women competed in a Nordic combined U.S. national championships in October, and the first women’s Nordic combined Continental Cup was held last month.
TRUE PARITY: WHEN?
The gender gap stretches beyond the Olympics. Ski jumping, like many sports, pays men far more than women.
Under the official rules of the International Ski Federation, which sets the minimum amount of prize money for the World Cup, the first place male jumper gets more than three times what the winning woman receives. The ski federation’s rules also stipulate that men receive “pocket money”; no such provision exists for women. And men receive up to four times more travel reimbursement money than the women.
“The prize money discrepancy is absurd in this day and age,” says Laura Sankey, president of Women’s Ski Jumping USA. “An elite ski jumper, whether a man or a woman, dedicates themselves to being their best and should be compensated equally.”
Jenny Wiedeke, a ski federation spokeswoman, says the group hopes to get women equal prize money in future seasons, though she said there is no timeline.
“Essentially the reason for the discrepancy is due to the difference in sponsorship, TV and spectator revenue for the organizers, making it difficult for them to support the men’s prize money payments for the ladies’ competitions while staying within their budgets,” Wiedeke said by e-mail. “The ladies’ tour is still quite new and still establishing itself in the above areas.”
Sankey dismisses that argument. She draws a parallel to startups, where founders invest in infrastructure and staff before seeing a profit. With equal economics, she says, the women’s tour could grow, bringing in more spectators, sponsors and revenue. As it stands, women must essentially fund themselves.
Whether women finally achieve true parity in the sport depends on how hard they keep pushing, says Van, who looks back on her legacy of fighting for equality with pride in the outcome and frustration that she had to fight at all.
“It’s unfortunate that it takes that much energy from so many people to do the right thing,” she says. “It’s kind of like this slow process. But slow is better than none.”
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