Olympic ski jumping remains men-only zone

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 19, 2009 - 2:05 AM

Record holder Lindsey Van and her fellow jumpers lost a long legal fight for admittance.

Lindsey Van

Photo: Alexander Hassenstein, Bongarts/getty Images

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Only one American ski jumper has ever won a gold medal in international competition. That was achieved earlier this year, at the world championships, by the athlete who holds the record for the longest jump on the hill that will hold the 2010 Olympics.

If the Olympic Charter actually meant what it said, Lindsey Van might have made history in Vancouver. Because she is a woman, she will not be there at all. Last week, Van and her fellow female jumpers lost the latest battle in their protracted legal fight to get women's ski jumping into the Winter Games, making it all but inevitable that their sport will remain a men-only zone inside the Olympic rings.

A British Columbia Supreme Court judge ruled last summer that the International Olympic Committee was discriminating against women -- and violating Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- by holding ski jumping events for men but not for women. But she added that the IOC is not bound by the charter, so it can do whatever it wants. Never mind that its own charter contains lots of pretty words about discrimination being "incompatible'' with the Olympic spirit. The IOC dug in its expensive Swiss heels, the women lost an appeal Friday and the Olympics will be the poorer for failing to right this wrong.

Other than flexing its considerable muscle, it's hard to understand why the IOC has taken such a hard line on this issue. It has consistently argued that women's ski jumping doesn't meet the requirements for Olympic participation, yet the facts seem to deflate that contention.

There are 164 women from 19 countries registered with the International Ski Federation, which voted 114-1 in 2006 to recommend their inclusion in the Olympics. That same year, the IOC turned them down, saying there were too few women from too few countries jumping at an elite level. It then voted to add ski cross to the Olympic program for 2010, even though it involved a smaller number of athletes and nations.

Another rule states a sport must have conducted two world championships before achieving Olympic status. Van won the first women's world title last spring, becoming the second American -- and the first since 1924 -- to medal at an international event. But the women's marathon had only one world championship before it was welcomed into the 1984 Olympics.

IOC member Gian-Franco Kasper said in 2005 that ski jumping "seems not to be appropriate for the ladies from a medical point of view.'' Yet Van jumped 105.5 meters on Vancouver's 90-meter hill in 2008, still the farthest any man or woman has soared at the Olympic venue. Of the elite class of nine jumpers to surpass 100 meters there, five are men and four are women. And while Van is barred from the Games, the last Canadian Olympics celebrated Eddie (The Eagle) Edwards, the British jumper who was so incompetent in 1988 that the IOC tightened its qualifying standards.

Ski jumping and Nordic combined, which pairs jumping with cross-country skiing, now are the last Olympic sports open only to men. Women's boxing has been added for 2012, and the new sports for 2016 -- golf and rugby sevens -- include competition for both genders.

Since the 2006 rejection, the IOC has repeatedly told women jumpers to wait, as polite ladies presumably do. But their sport cannot grow and thrive without the golden promise of the Olympics. The American women lost their funding from the U.S. Ski Team this year, when the organization chose to focus on athletes bound for the all-important Olympic stage.

It's said that well-behaved women rarely make history. The group of 14 who filed suit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games stood up for themselves, and the IOC seems determined to punish them for challenging its authority. By this point, it could have assured them admittance to the 2014 Games; instead, it has consistently refused their requests for meetings and discussion.

The women soon will decide whether to make a final appeal, to Canada's Supreme Court. During their 19-month legal battle, they have received widespread public support. More than 11,000 people have signed a petition, and actress Virginia Madsen is producing a documentary about their plight.

That is likely to come as cold comfort to women who wanted only one thing: to fly toward Olympic gold in Vancouver. They might not get their chance. But by showing courage and tenacity of Olympic proportions, they have carried the cause of women's sports a little closer to the mountaintop.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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