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May, 3rd 2009

A sport you may not see in next year's Winter Olympics

– Liz Mair

Readers will know that in addition to posting on politics, I occasionally post on sports, too.  Usually, I'll focus on Premiership football (and specifically Arsenal-- go Gunners!) when sportsblogging.  But today, I've got another sport I'd like to focus on ever so briefly: Women's ski jumping.

This is not a sport I watch like a hawk or am overly familiar with.  Nor is it a sport I currently participate in, or ever intend to participate in.  It's way too scary for my tastes.  I remember when I was about ten standing on exactly the spot from which ski jumpers propelled themselves during the 1988 Calgary Olympics (photo taken from roughly that spot available here) and being scared to death.  But full credit and hats off to those (men and women) who have the intestinal fortitude to do this kind of thing.

Not that there's a level playing field, though: It turns out that women can't compete in Olympic ski jumping, even though they're fighting to change that in advance of the Vancouver Olympics next year.  From a post by self-described Olympics junkie, Ron Judd, from the site of my hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times, comes this:

Looking in from the outside, John Furlong looks to me to be a pretty smart guy.

The CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee has dodged more than a few bullets (sorry; no pun intended, Vancouverites) in assembling the team that's getting ready to host the world for the 2010 WInter Olympics, which will launch in Vancouver and Whistler only 10 months from now.

That's why I don't get where things stand with the lawsuit women's ski jumpers have filed to force their way into the Games.

I get why they filed it: they've been rebuffed at other, traditional methods to gain Olympic-medal status -- stonewalled by the International Olympic Committee, a still all-too-good-old-boys organization that keeps insisting the sport is not yet ready for prime time.

But I don't get why smart people at VANOC, or by extension its stodgy grandfather, the IOC, ever let it get this far.

Here are the facts: Women's ski jumping is ready for prime time. The international field of competitors ranges between 150 and 200, depending on how you define "world class." It has cracked the glass ceiling of the international ski federation and hosted its own World Championship. It does, in fact, have more valid competitors today than other sports, such as women's ski-cross, had when the door was opened to them by the IOC.

Its inclusion in the Olympics seems inevitable. Ski jumping is an original Winter Olympic sport, dating to the first Games in Chamonix in 1924. And today, it (as well as Nordic combined, a cross-country ski/ski jump sport that also requires ski jumping) are the only winter sports competed by men, and not women. For an organization that purports to be about inclusion and fairness, fixing this historic inequity is long overdue.

My guess is that the IOC's primary reason for denying its entrance in time for the Vancouver Games is that the IOC doesn't like to be told what to do, or when -- not by anybody, including VANOC, and certainly not by a group of pesky women ski jumpers.

That's fine, and it's expected. But what continues to amaze me is how VANOC and the IOC fail to recognize the grand opportunity that's been gift-wrapped and placed right before them. After five days of testimony in a Vancouver courtroom, nobody produced any valid reasons why women shouldn't compete in the Olympics.

The best argument I've heard is one I've often made myself: The costs of hosting a modern Olympics already are prohibitive for host citites. Any move to make the Games bigger only adds to that cost.

But ski jumping is an exception. Ski jump venues already are likely the costliest buy in the athlete-per-dollar equation. The Games already have footed the exhorbitant bills for a ski jump used by men. Why not open it to women and double the bang for the buck?

That leaves you with no good argument at all, outside the aforementioned control-freak aspect.

There's more, but the upshot of what Judd recommends is that a) the IOC should come to its senses before it gets to the point of a Canadian court issuing a verdict on this (which he suggests could be a less-than-ideal result in and of itself for the IOC) and reverse its own decision, but barring that, b) Furlong (or another person meeting Judd's "smart and savvy" criteria) should, together with other credible Canadians, be calling up IOC members to try to coax them into changing their views. 

I don't know enough about the IOC, key influencers or how it operates to know whether this is, in fact, the best strategy or not.  But what I do know is that when you have pieces like this running in USA Today (the nation's biggest paper) blasting the IOC's President, Jacques Rogge, for being insufficiently supportive of women's sports, on top of women ski jumpers filing an actual lawsuit to get into the Games, you have a big PR problem on your hands-- and one that won't be solved by talking up new rules for ice skating or trying to make cross-country skiing seem more riveting than it actually is.  It seems like the IOC could solve this problem by letting women jump-- and add a little more flair and excitement to the 2010 Winter Games, as well.  Perhaps the IOC should have a rethink of its policy?  10,712 people who have signed this petition seem to think so, and I'd bet they're not the only ones. [intro]

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