Women make the jump at Winter Games [Commentary]

Women will compete in the ski jump for the first time ever in the Winter Olympics Tuesday. Don't blink, you might miss it.

While the men will compete on both hills and in team competition this week, the women will take only one day to jump from the smaller hill. But it is a big leap for womankind, the culmination of a long legal battle.

Though men have competed in ski jumping since the first Winter Games in 1924, and though women are allowed to compete in bobsled, luge and ice hockey, the International Olympic Committee had refused to let women ski jump in the games until now.

Why? Officials made excuses about the shallow pool of talent in the sport, but that can certainly have been said about the participation of women in other traditionally male sports. And the best remedy for a shortage of talented athletes is to put a sport in the Olympics.

In addition, the women were competing on a third-rate world circuit, using hills that men would never deign to use, training and traveling on pocket change and literally sleeping in the loft of a cow shed. That neither inspires participation nor sharpens skills.

And as late as 2005, officials like Gian-Franco Kasper, the head of International Ski Federation, was saying that jumping and landing 1,000 times a year would do damage to a woman's reproductive organs.

Ski jumping, he said, "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."

Lindsey Van, the first world champion and the sport's grand dame at 28, told The Washington Post she doesn't know how many times she has been asked if her uterus has fallen out yet.

It might be that the gap between men's and women's scoring is so small — literally inches — that the men didn't much like a side-by-side comparison. And since it is considered the most "extreme" of the original Olympic winter sports, its danger quotient might be diminished if a woman was seen to be doing it just as well.

Ms. Van, who has been training alongside boys in Park City, Utah, since she was 7, made the U.S. team, and it is right that she did. It was she who was pushed to the microphones during the law suit filed in 2008 against the Vancouver Olympic Committee, asking that the men not be allowed to compete if the women were not.

A Canadian appeals court denied the women, saying it had no jurisdiction over the IOC, which is based in Switzerland, and could not compel it to include women's ski jumping. In addition, the judge — a woman — wrote that the exclusion was sexual discrimination to be sure. But not a violation of any constitutional rights.

Ms. Van, weeping, compared the Canadian court to the Taliban in its treatment of women and girls.

But the wheels were turning, and in 2011 the IOC decided to include women's ski jumping from the short hill in Sochi, although women are still not allowed to compete in the Nordic combined, which includes both cross-country skiing and ski jumping.

In addition to Ms. Van, who set a record on the Vancouver jump during pre-Olympic competition that no man would beat, Jessica Jerome, who won the U.S. team trials this year and whose father was instrumental in the lawsuit, is in Sochi to compete.

So is Sarah Hendrickson, who is coming off a terrible knee injury suffered during a practice run in Germany last summer. She is just 19 and a temperamental wunderkind, but she may be the best woman ski jumper ever. She won nine of 13 World Cup events and was world champion in 2013.

During her absences from the circuit this fall, Japan's Sara Takanashi has taken center stage, creating more excitement for Tuesday.

Ski jumping is equal parts danger and elegance. Competitors in suits that fit their frames like a second skin rip down a 400-foot ice track at 60 miles an hour and take off in a balanced crouch, fighting both gravity and wind and knowing that the movement of a thumb can make a grave difference.

Jumpers never get higher than 10 or 12 feet — TV makes it look much higher — while cruising a distance the length of a football field and a half. Distance and style points determine the winner.

And it is often said that without a ponytail flying from the back of the helmet, it is hard to tell whether the human kite that is crossing the sky is a man or a woman.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com

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