Women's ski jumping finally arrives at Olympics, though sexism still lingers
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Here’s what I think as a Dad of two young girls: I don’t really want them jumping off a mountain on skis. But I’m extraordinarily happy that they can.
There is almost no chance that my daughters will ever ski jump, by the way. Heck they will not start higher than the third step when jumping into my arms when I get home. But that misses the point. What you want for your children are limitless possibilities. What you want for them is open sky. I might not long for them to become Olympic boxers, cadets at the Citadel or members at Augusta National. But I’m glad those avenues, just like CEO of Yahoo or General Motors, are open.
Embedded video_content_type: Ski jumping history made in Sochi
Who would have expected women’s Olympic ski-jumping to come AFTER Augusta National had female members, by the way? Who would have expected this venerable sport — they’ve been ski-jumping at the Winter Games since 1924 — to be the final frontier of over-the-top, Hagar the Horrible, old-fashioned, 1950s, Mad Men sexism? I’m not saying that there’s no sexism left in the world; of course there is, plenty of it.
I’m saying that there aren’t many times these days when people refuse to let women participate because of the fear that – and I’m quoting ski jumper Lindsey Van here — “our uteruses would fall out.” This was a real quote, a real opinion, and not 50 years ago in black and white sitcoms featuring men smoking big cigars. No, we’re talking about 2010. We’re talking about a time period even Miley Cyrus remembers.
Van and her fellow American ski-jumper Jessica Jerome did not want to become trailblazers. They just wanted to jump off mountains. That was the thing that enthralled them. Like flying, they thought. Like the feeling of when you put your hand out the car window and let the wind take it. The trailblazing was the bitter aftertaste that came with the dream.
Jerome’s father Peter, a hero in our story, wasn’t crazy about his daughter ski jumping at first. Peter sounds like a kindred spirit. In his mind he saw (as I would see) the famous “agony of defeat” ski-jump crash that led off ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
But in the end, Dads don’t want to stand in front of their daughter’s dreams. We want to help make them happen. So he went out, got a non-profit for dummies book, and helped his daughter and Van and a handful of others create an organization to fight for women’s rights to ski-jump (and raise a little money so they could train).
This road was mind-bogglingly complicated. In 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, the president of the International Ski Federation, said ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
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He did not go into any greater detail, which is a shame because that would have made for a great Saturday Night Live skit. It’s so wonderfully prehistoric on two levels. One, the obvious one, he was somehow suggesting with absolutely no evidence, logic or common sense that women’s bodies were too fragile for ski jumping. It’s OK, ladies, you sit here on the side while the big, strong men jump from the mountain. You can cheer. It’s like a Little Rascals episode.
Two, you could argue pretty persuasively that ski jumping isn’t appropriate for ANYONE from a medical point of a view.
Anyway, Van and Jerome and others had to hammer away at this stupidity for far too long. The shame of it is that while they were hammering, they were losing their peak years as ski jumpers. Van in particular was probably at her best in the mid-2000s, years before her group had made any headway at all. In 2008, she got pretty badly hurt. In 2009, for the first time, there was a women’s ski jumping event at the World Championships. She was the first North American, man or woman, to medal in ski jumping.
Embedded video_content_type: Gold medal garners emotional outpouring
She was then the face of a lawsuit against the IOC to make ski jumping part of the Vancouver Games in 2010. The appeal was turned down. Van was broken-hearted. She thought for sure — FOR SURE — their time had come. She broke down in tears and angrily lashed out at the IOC.
The sheer unfairness of having ski jumping at the Olympics for 90 years and not including women seemed like it would force change. Van and Jerome and others had figured, logically, that everyone would just see how ridiculous it was to exclude women. But change just doesn’t work that way. “Change,” Martin Luther King famously said, “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” Van and Jerome and others had to keep fighting until finally the IOC, perhaps understanding their medical stance was untenable and also stupid, added women’s ski jumping to these Games.
Tuesday night, the first women’s ski jump happened. Lindsey Van was there. Jessica Jerome was there. A younger American, Sarah Hendrickson, was there too (though injured). None of them won a medal. It’s probably too pat to say that they were OK with not making the podium, that they were thrilled just to be at the Olympics. They all wanted a medal.
But, beyond that disappointment, yes, they did grasp the moment. They did understand the bigger achievement here. “The Olympics,” Van said after finishing 15th. “It’s so cool!”
It is cool. The gold medalist was Germany’s Carina Vogt, a police officer. She has wanted to be a ski jumper since she was 4 years old and saw men jumping on TV. After she won the gold, she broke down in tears of joy. It was beautiful. I still don’t think I’d want my daughters doing it. But hey, if somehow that became their dream, I’d be waiting for them. At the bottom of the mountain. Definitely at the bottom.
Embedded video_content_type: Hendrickson: ski jumping since age seven
Oh, wait, one more thing.
“What would you do if your future husband asked you not to continue ski jumping,” a reporter asked Sarah Hendrickson after the competition. Yes, someone really asked her that after the first women’s ski jump ever. She was the best ski-jumper in the world when she crashed. She had come back from ACL surgery FIVE MONTHS AGO, had competed at the Olympic Games, had given everything. She undoubtedly was feeling hurt because of her 21st place finish, pride because she was the first woman to ever jump at the Olympics, pain in her leg and hope for the next time. And she gets asked THAT.
Not surprisingly, she had the perfect answer.
“He would not be the right man for me,” she said.
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