The first measured ski jump was explicitly a show of manhood. In 1809, the story goes, a lieutenant in the Norwegian military launched himself 9.5 meters through the air "to show his soldiers what a courageous fellow he was." The sport that grew out of that jump was likewise a test of manliness—far too dangerous, it was thought, for members of the gentler sex. "If a man gets a serious injury, it's still not fatal, but for women it could end much more seriously," a Russian ski jumping coach said. "Women have another purpose—to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home."
Given the sport's longtime "masculinity," the only surprise about that quote may have been when the man said it: last month.
The coach in question, Alexander Arefyev, was talking about the inaugural women's ski jumping event in the Olympics. Yes, inaugural—until today, women ski jumpers have not been allowed to compete at this level. This long overdue development has been greeted with a lot of triumphal stories like this one, implying that the battle to jump is over. It's not.
"We are thrilled, obviously," said Deedee Corradini, president of Women's Ski Jumping USA since 2004 and the former Salt Lake City mayor who was instrumental in bringing the Winter Olympics to the city. "It's been such an emotional rollercoaster over the past eight years to get them into the Olympics. But we did realize when we first started to work on this that we weren't going to get everything that we wanted."
Or, you could argue, everything that would actually make the women's sport equal to the men's.
A little background. In the 19th century, as the sport came of age, physicians were still touting the same, specious ideas about women's bodies that had been around since the days of Hippocrates. Female organs, they believed, are super-delicate. So delicate, in fact, that they could literally come apart and float free of their moorings. The "wandering womb," as doctors called it, was cited as a cause of "hysteria" (a diagnosis that applied to any number of ailments and symptoms, from insomnia to "a tendency to cause trouble," as Rachel Maines writes in The Technology of Orgasm). In their excellent essay, "'Skierinas' in the Olympics," authors Patricia Vertinsky, Shannon Jette, and Annette Hofmann quote a male physician of the era on the subject of ski jumping:
The very training called for—standing upright during a jump—is far more strenuous than realized. Not only are many muscles under continuous strain but the heart, as well as the rest of the nervous system is under great strain. One must concentrate one's full attention on the run down to the take off and maintain this concentration during the flight. All of one's muscles, one's very will are put to the test. This state of mind is very strenuous for more or less weak, nervous and untrained women.
Women, it was thought, have a limited store of vital energy. Too much exertion might weaken the muscles keeping the uterus in place. As one German doctor wrote in 1926, "Because of the unanswered medical question as to whether ski jumping agrees with the female organism, this would be a very daring experiment and should be strongly advised against."
That didn't stop women jumpers. The first recorded female jump was by Norwegian athlete Ingrid Olavsdottir Vestby, back in 1862. Not only did she not lose her ovaries but, as one eyewitness wrote, she "flew until she landed firmly, planted on her skis, past the point where many a brave lad had lost his balance earlier in the competition." A few women were jumping into the 20th century, some of them surely making a conscious act of gender protest, but as Vertinsky, Jette, and Hofmann note they were regarded more as sideshows than as athletic competitors.
As ski jumping formalized into an organized sport—organized by men, of course—women found themselves even more on the margins. Raised eyebrows were codified into technical regulations. In the first Winter Olympics of 1924, every discipline was restricted to men. And even as women's sports were added, women's jumping was… not.
The medical consensus may have shifted away from the wandering womb since then, but the underlying objection has remained the same: Biology presents an insuperable handicap. "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," said the head of the International Ski Federation (FIS), Gian Franco Kasper, in 2005. (He later retracted the statement).
Let's point out what should be pretty obvious already: Ski jumping is hard on women's bodies. That's because it's hard on everyone's bodies—on knees and knee ligaments, in particular, not on reproductive organs. The IOC's Medical Commission itself stated the equivalent of "no duh" in a special report in 2002, writing that, in sports in general, "The female reproductive organs are better protected from serious athletic injury than the male organs. Serious sports injuries to the uterus or ovaries are extremely rare." Lindsey Van, one of the three women jumping for the U.S. this year and the winner in 2009 of the first Nordic World Ski Championships to include women, put the matter more colorfully to NBC last year: "It just makes me nauseous. Like, I kind of want to vomit. Like, really? Like, I'm sorry, but my baby-making organs are on the inside. Men have an organ on the outside. So if it's not safe for me jumping down, then my uterus is going to fall out, what about the organ on the outside of the body?"
When it comes to ski jumping specifically, the idea that athletes land flat and seriously "jar" their bodies and their lady bits—to a degree beyond that of injuries sustained in other high-impact sports—is just wrong. Rules forbid any straight section whatsoever on the landing of a ski jump; instead, the part where jumpers land is typically about 35 or 36 degrees, flattening slowly to 30 degrees. If an athlete stays balanced and keeps her knees soft to absorb the impact—part of basic training 101 for any on-snow sport, not just jumping—she'll be fine. As the Women's Ski Jumping USA site points out, "Landings actually can be the easiest part of a ski jump." And just from watching jumping, the landings also seem less jarring than, I don't know, running moguls.
There are exceptional cases. In her warmups before qualification for the Olympics last week, U.S. freestyler Heidi Kloser crashed while landing a jump, tearing her ACL and sustaining both an impact bruise to her knee and an impact fracture to her femur. Her sex organs, apparently, were fine.
But the biological objection is a powerful one, and durable, too. It allows certain hardheaded men to maintain a strict gender distinction in a sport that privileges lightness and form, one in which the difference between male and female performance is relatively thin. "If women can jump as far as men, what does that do to the extreme value of this sport?" Van told The New York Times Magazine last year. "I think we scared the ski-jumping [establishment]."
It was only recently that the sport began to open itself up to women at all levels. Before 2009, men could jump in the continental cups, world cups, and world championships; women had only the continental cup, which is a step below the world cup. (The Nordic World Ski Championships included women in 2009, and the world cup followed suit in 2011). The Olympics remained defiantly backward. A 1991 vote by IOC members required new Olympic sports to have both a male and female component, but because ski jumping had been around so long and thus wasn't a "new" sport, the rule didn't apply. When IOC members voted on whether to include women's jumping in 2006, they voted … no.
In the hopes of getting in for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, 15 of the frustrated athletes sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee, claiming gender discrimination. It went to the British Columbia Supreme Court, where the judge ruled that, yes, they were being kept out because of gender discrimination. But the judge added that, as an international organization, the IOC didn't have to obey Canada's laws against discrimination. It could do what it wanted to—even for games hosted on Canada's own soil.
Still, the ground was shifting, and most officials had realized new, less gendered alibis were called for. "Medical" reasons were out (with a few memorable exceptions). Now the problem with women's ski jumping was that the sport just didn't meet the technical criteria. Ski jumping's own history was working against the women jumpers. Paternalism and silly superstitions had been enshrined in the rules a century ago, and the sport had been impoverished as a result. Now its very poverty was being used as evidence against the worthiness of women's ski jumping—even as other women's sports, ones with fewer athletes than ski jumping, were being added to the Olympics without a problem.
IOC rules used to stipulate, for example, that a sport needs at least two world championships under its belt to be included, something female jumping didn't have as of 2010. In the past, the IOC has carved out exemptions for some sports—women's marathon and cross country skiing, for instance—but refused to do so for women's jumping, holding firm even after 2007, when it formally softened the rule. "I hope the girls don't waste their time and make this a human rights issue," said Dick Pound, a Canadian member of the IOC.
More importantly, the IOC argued that there weren't enough athletes to compete at an elite level. "This is just the respect of essential technical rules that say to become an Olympic sport, a sport must be widely practiced around the world ... and have a big appeal," said IOC president Jacques Rogge in 2008. "This is not the case for women's ski jumping so there is no discrimination whatsoever." Sure. Maybe. But other sports with fewer women, like snowboard cross or bobsled, had been allowed in. Plus, as the lawyer for the female jumpers in the suit, Ross Clark of Davis LLP, pointed out to me in a recent email, "The canard of 'not being ready yet' is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once a sport becomes an 'Olympic Sport,' it has been repeatedly demonstrated that it will attract the money required to raise the overall standards and competitiveness. There is a history of this."
Even though the jumpers didn't win the case, the IOC relented in the face of the ensuing PR hullabaloo, deciding in 2011 to let the women jump for the next Olympics.
So here we are. Sochi! 2014! Here's the good news: Women will jump for the first time in the Olympics in a matter of minutes. The bad news: Theirs is still a second-class sport.
First, this week, men get three Olympic events: the individual, normal hill; the individual, large hill; and the team event, in which each team has four members. Women get only one: the individual, normal hill.
That's too bad, since women have shown they can jump right with the men. Ahead of the Vancouver Games in 2010, Lindsey Van of the U.S. had the longest jump off the K95 (normal) hill of any athlete, male or female—105.5 meters—even though she wasn't allowed to compete in the actual Games. Here's Van during the Olympic team trials in December, flying a solid 93.5 meters off the hill:
And those who know the sport say women have been comfortably soaring off the K120 (large) hill for years (and that some even have loved launching off hills that "dwarf" even the K120).
Perhaps tied to the fact that they were given fewer events than the men, women also get slots for only 30 jumpers. The men have 50, a number that was, moreover, narrowed down in qualifications from an initial pool of 70. The U.S., therefore, had only three women's spots. So some of the country's, and the world's, top jumpers—like Alissa Johnson, 27, who placed in the top 30 in all six world cup events just ahead of the Olympics—were left out. The lack of numbers parity, and the cuts that have necessarily ensued, mean that "Sochi is bittersweet for a lot of people," as one top-level jumper's father told me.
Sports fans should still celebrate the fact that women can jump at all on an Olympic level. It is a start, and something the women have had to fight for. It was also never a guaranteed victory: Some athletes I interviewed back in 2010 said they thought they'd be allowed in 2006, never mind 2010, and by this point, they had all but lost hope.
At the same time, the continued restrictions, based on ski jumping's self-reinforcing myths, show that the women still have to fight to reach real parity with the men. That ongoing inequality causes other problems, too: Less recognition, both by formal organizations and by the public, means less money, which means fewer resources and less training ... which means fewer athletes being developed to the kind of level necessary to expand the sport.
For training and travel alone, it costs about $85,000 a year to support an elite athlete, Corradini told me. "Another area where we need money, but have not been able to spend money, is the development program," she said. "We have all these young girls jumping in Park City and other places and they need training. We have potential, but we need money." In fact, Women's Ski Jumping USA, the nonprofit that runs the U.S. women's ski jumping program and directs training for the athletes, was itself an all-volunteer organization until just a year ago, when it hired its first executive director. "We're operating on an extremely small budget compared to most other sports," Corradini said.
Its debut in the Olympics should get the sport more recognition and more resources. But everything has the air of a sop, as if IOC were patting the girls on the head and saying: "Yes, OK, we'll give you this one concession. Now shut up and let the men do their thing."
"Hopefully," Norwegian Laurentius Urdahl wrote in his 1893 skiing handbook, "ladies are not going to attempt ski jumping. It is so tempting to try but the best for all those involved would-be accomplished skiers is that they abstain completely from this sport." We are not so far from these sentiments, as Alexander Arefyev demonstrated. Don't mistake today's events for anything but a half-step forward—a welcome one, but a half-step nonetheless.
It's a funny thing. A sport that was once so concerned about women losing their uteruses still seems to have trouble locating its balls.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, TheGlobe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.
Photo of Russia's Irina Avvakumova by Lars Baron/Getty Images.