The media spotlight is shining on the world’s best athletes this week at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Some of them are women. A few women are ski jumpers.
This year, for the first time, women will be allowed to compete against each other in the ski jumping event. Sports aren’t my passion (an understatement). I knew nothing about the contentious history of women’s ski jumping until I heard a riveting report by Tamara Keith on National Public Radio. According to Keith, the International Olympic Committee repeatedly told female jumpers their sport was not “at a high enough caliber” to qualify for inclusion in the Olympics, though women often soar as far as or farther than men.
Women have competed in ski jump events for more than 100 years, but the IOC had never recognized the event for women. Why the segregation? According to the Women’s Ski Jumping USA organization, “… some considered that women’s bodies couldn’t handle the sport — not unlike what was said in the 1970s and 1980s about women marathoners.”
And the 1960s. Kathrine Switzer, now 66, was the first woman to enter, run and finish the men-only Boston Marathon in 1967. As recounted in this month’s Prevention Magazine, “Wearing the race bib # 261, she was attacked by one of the organizers, and the assault was immortalized in photographs of that historic race.” The anger and fear in the faces of men shoving Switzer evoked civil rights strife in the same decade. Switzer finished, determined to create opportunities for women to run. In 1972 women were welcomed in the Boston Marathon, and at the Olympics for the women’s marathon.
In 2008, female ski jumpers from six countries sued for the right to compete in the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, B.C. The Canadian court ruled the IOC was practicing gender discrimination, but did not force it to add the event in 2010. The next year, the IOC added one women’s ski-jumping event, called “normal hill competition,” for the 2014 games. Men have three ski-jumping events.
The IOC used female ski jumpers for past Olympics to “make sure the ski jumps were safe for the men,” according to NPR. I was chilled (excuse the pun) and horrified. I thought of the Tuskegee Airmen, the patriotic African-American pilots who flew escort planes for heavy bombers in World War II piloted by whites. Or female WASP pilots in World War II who flew stateside missions to free up male pilots for overseas assignment, but had no military status.
When Jessica Jerome and her teammates represent the United States in Olympic women’s ski jumping, it will be a big leap for women’s sports. Women are making strides — in marathons, on ski slopes, in society. For women to truly soar — and by that I mean achieve and sustain equality — societies and cultures must embrace ability and competence, without discrimination. Based on the protracted struggle of female ski jumpers for Olympic recognition, women’s equality continues to be earthbound and measured in small steps.
Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community-development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.