Viewpoint: Women’s ski jumping deserves to take flight in Vancouver

The thrills and spills of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games won’t grace our airwaves for another 11 months, but it seems the International Olympic Committee is one contender that has already fallen flat on its face.

Next winter, billions of viewers will watch the Olympic events unfold on their TV screens and computer monitors. One of those events will be ski jumping – an exciting and daring spectacle in which athletes hurl themselves 20 feet into the air off an icy ramp with skis strapped to their feet.

But thanks to the IOC, not a single one of those competitors will be a woman.

Three years ago, the Committee ruled women’s ski jumping didn’t make the grade as an Olympic sport, and would not be included in the 2010 Games.

The decision was based on what the Committee called “technical merit,” meaning that the sport didn’t have enough world-class competitors, and wouldn’t see the requisite two world championships before being added to the Olympic roster. That didn’t sit too well with the more than 130 women from 16 nations who are registered as global competitors with the International Ski Federation.

And it shouldn’t. After all, women’s snowboard cross boasts only 34 women from 10 countries, and bobsled has only 26 women from 13 nations vying for the podium.

Women’s ski jumping will already have one world championship under its belt by the time the 2010 Games get under way – the same number as the women’s marathon when it was added to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Laura Robinson, a Canadian sports journalist and former competitive cyclist, says the decision to exclude the women’s ski jump is just another manifestation of the “no girls allowed” mentality that is still so pervasive in professional sports.

“These are the issues that are still part and parcel of the attitude that the IOC has about women’s participation,” says Robinson, who has written several books dealing with the link between sport and sexuality. “For example, why can countries send five men and only three women to the (cycling) road race? There are seven events in cycling for men, but only five for women.”

Robinson has covered several Olympic Games for various news organizations, and adds that the while the IOC claims to be cutting back on women’s events to minimize the number of competing athletes, they continue to add new events like BMX bike racing to the schedule.

In light of all this, a group of women ski jumpers – which now includes five Canadians – have launched a lawsuit against Vancouver’s Olympic organizing committee, claiming that allowing only the men to compete amounts to a violation of the female jumpers’ Charter rights.

Robinson says the athletes definitely have a case. Although the Vancouver organizing committee is a private group, it is partially funded by hundred of millions from the federal government, which means it could be subject to Charter law. For its part, the IOC denies its decision had anything to do with the fact that the jumpers happen to be women.

However, it is hard to imagine that a large group of highly-trained, professional male athletes would ever find themselves banging on the doors of B.C.’s Supreme Court to demand that they simply be allowed to participate in the Olympics.

What kind of message does such a clear case of sexual discrimination send to young girls aspiring to become top-tier athletes – or to any young girl, for that matter? The agility, concentration and sheer guts it takes to compete in professional ski jumping deserve to be witnessed in an Olympic setting, and the sport deserves to be showcased by both male and female athletes.

The “rules,” such as they are, were not brought down from a mountain carved on tablets of stone. The rules are arbitrary, and have been bent before. The organizing committee wouldn’t even have to change the current venue – since men and women compete on identical jumps – making it even more ludicrous to exclude this viable (and entertaining) event from the schedule.

It is high time for officials at every level to wake up and give all female athletes the respect they are due.