Lindsey Van holds the record among both men and women for the longest jump off Whistler, British Columbia's normal ski jump, built for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The 25-year-old skier trains six days a week, 11 months a year, and has been jumping for the past 19 years. But when the Games kick off on Feb. 12, the 2009 women's ski-jumping world champion will be nowhere in sight. That's because women aren't allowed to ski jump in the Olympics.
It's not for lack of trying. Female ski jumpers have petitioned to join every Winter Olympics since Nagano in 1998, and each time they have been denied by the International Olympics Committee (IOC). In fact, ski jumping is the only Olympic discipline to remain men-only. (Technically, Nordic combined is also limited to males, but that's because it includes ski jumping.) In 1991 the IOC announced that all future Olympic sports must be open to both genders, but the rule didn't apply to sports that already existed and as one of the 16 original events in the inaugural Winter Games in 1924, ski jumping was definitely one of them.
"I don't think there's any discrimination going on," says Joe Lamb, the U.S. ski-team representative for the International Ski Federation's (FIS) ski-jumping committee. "It may seem like that, but there are hundreds of other issues at play." Vancouver can accommodate only so many athletes, says Lamb, and whenever a new event is introduced, it limits the number of people able to participate in others. That, coupled with the IOC's list of criteria that a sport must meet before it is accepted a history of world championships and a sizable number of athletes participating worldwide made the women's ski jump an unlikely addition for 2010. And yet the IOC allowed Vancouver to add something called ski cross a freestyle discipline in which multiple skiers race over bumps and jumps, like a snowy version of motocross even though at the time of its application, the sport reportedly had fewer participants than women's ski jumping.
The IOC declined interview requests for this article, but a spokesperson provided a written statement saying, "Women's Ski Jumping does not reach the necessary technical criteria and as such does not yet warrant a place alongside other Olympic events." Van isn't sure what that means. "I would love to know what the technical merits are," she says. "We have international competitions and our own championships. We meet all the technical requirements."
Well, sort of. The IOC originally announced its decision to exclude women jumpers from the Vancouver Olympics back in 2006. At the time, a women's world championship didn't exist, and females had been participating in the FIS Continental Cup a notch below a world championship for only two years. The sport didn't have very many high-profile, FIS-sanctioned competitions, but that too may have owed to gender bias. In 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, FIS president and a member of the IOC, said he didn't think women should ski jump because the sport "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view." By the time women's ski jumping was included at a world-championship-level event in 2009, it was too late; Vancouver's Olympic event schedule was already established.
In April 2009, Van and nine other female jumpers sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for violating the ban on gender discrimination in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that although the IOC's decision did qualify as gender discrimination, as an international organization, it was not required to obey Canada's laws; also, that VANOC had no authority to tell them which sports they could and could not include. "I don't know about that," says Lamb. "Ladies' bobsled got into [the 2002 Olympics in] Salt Lake because enough people on the organizing committee pressured the IOC to push it through." Whether or not that's true only the IOC knows, and its members aren't talking it doesn't change the court ruling.
Last year, nearly 100 women competed in FIS-sanctioned ski-jump competitions. There are at least 30 top-tier jumpers from 11 different nations numbers equivalent to Olympic women's bobsled stats and by the time the 2014 Olympics roll around, several more world championships will have taken place. But a Vancouver shutout has severely hindered the sport's ability to grow. Following the IOC's announcement, a recession-weary U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association dropped the U.S. women's ski-jump team, saying it could not afford to fund a non-Olympic event in this economy. Athletes have found their sponsorship opportunities limited, and Van worries that the sport's low profile will lessen its potential appeal for the next generation of jumpers. "When people hear about ski jump, they just assume it's in the Olympics, but once they realize it's not, I don't feel that we're taken as seriously," she says.
So will the IOC approve women's ski jump for 2014? "We'll have to wait and see," IOC member Dick Pound said in an interview for an MSNBC.com documentary on women's ski jumping, Frozen Out of the Olympics. "If, in the meantime, you're making all kinds of allegations about the IOC and how it's discriminating on the basis of gender," he warned, "the IOC may say, 'Oh yeah, I remember them. They're the ones that embarrassed us and caused us a lot of trouble in Vancouver. Maybe they should wait another four years or eight years.' "
Women's ski jump will likely be included in the Olympics one day, but for now the women remain on the sidelines. If Van's record at Whistler is surpassed this Olympics, it will be done by a man.