Women's ski jumping makes debut at Sochi Olympics

American ski jumper Lindsey Van (Reuters)

American ski jumper Lindsey Van (Reuters)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 3:57 PM ET

SOCHI - Have uterus, will jump. And finally for an Olympic medal.

The absurd mix of sexism and ignorance that kept women's ski jumping out of the Games for decades will end here next week, now that at least one of the archaic beliefs of the International Olympic Committee finally has been corrected.

A shame that it took so long, almost half a century in the making before the landmark decision in 2011, the reasons for keeping women jumpers grounded varied from medical to madness.

As recently as 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, then president of the International Ski Federation said the sport "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."

Left unsaid by Kasper was the long-held belief that the impact of jumping would wreak havoc on female reproduction systems.

Never mind that for years women have competed in other high-impact events such as moguls and freestyle skiing. Never mind how ridiculous the case against sounded.

After a failed lawsuit to attempt to push their way in for the 2010 Games in Vancouver, the women were finally recognized three years ago when the stubborn IOC finally relented and paved their way in for Sochi.

"I've worked a long time to be here, I can't wait to show everybody our sport," Lindsey Van, an American jumper and trailblazer for the sport said on Friday. "It's taken us 90 years to have a chance, so just check us out."

Many will, beginning next Tuesday when the women compete at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center, an historic first and vindication after the bitterness, controversy and decades of futile lobbying.

"In 2010, we were frustrated that we didn't get into the Olympics, but since then, we've just gotten stronger as the years went by," said Calgary's Atsuko Tanaka, one of two Canadian women jumpers preparing to compete here. "We're ready to show the world what we've got."

That struggle included a lawsuit against the Vancouver organizing committee put forth by a group of 15 women -- Van was one of the ring leaders -- a futile process that had no hope of succeeding. Drawing attention to the cause may have helped force the hand of the slow-to-move IOC to give its belated blessing less than a year later. Or perhaps not.

The most ridiculous argument, foisted on the public for years, was that women's anatomy isn't built to handle the rigours of landing after a big jump, never mind that females have long competed in all sorts of physically demanding sports.

"You heard a lot of different rumours about women's bodies not being able to handle the impact," Curtis Lyon, the high performance director for Ski Jumping Canada said this week. "It was out there for sure. But they can handle it. These athletes, they're fit. They do hundreds and hundreds of jumps during the year."

While it is baby steps for now -- the women have just one event and it's on a shorter hill than the men -- at least they are in the Games. And those who follow the sport have seen a dramatic change in the quality of competition now that the ultimate incentive is available for the first time.

"Since the world championships of 2009 to now, you wouldn't even recognize it," Lyon said. "It was overnight. All the countries get a lot more serious once the Games are involved. You see a lot more countries coming in and putting more money into their programs. It just raises the game."

For the athletes, finally getting the chance to jump for an Olympic medal will offer some emotional closure to the rocky past. On one hand, there will be sadness that many of the pioneers of the sport, who fought for its Olympic inclusion, have long since retired. On the other, there were those who can remember the pain of denial and the joy of redemption.

"There were tears," Tanaka recalled the other day when asked to describe the emotion jumpers felt when the sport wasn't cleared in time for Vancouver. "It was really disappointing to hear when your one goal as an athlete is to go to the Olympics and they take that dream from you.

"It's definitely a great privilege to be among the first women ski jumping. It's always been a dream of mine ... and now we're here."

JUMPER GOES FROM LAWSUIT TO SKI SUIT

At age 29, Lindsey Van may not be an old-timer, but she's experienced a lifetime worth of heartache.

The American ski jumper has seen her sport regularly snubbed by the International Olympic Committee, an exercise that has at times left her futile and frustrated. And now that she is finally on the cusp of realizing her dreams, Van working hard to channel her emotions.

Before walking in Friday's opening ceremony, Van talked about the emotional roller coaster that has defined her time in the sport.

"I just have to focus on the big picture, Van said on Friday. "It's humbling and a lot to take in."

Van, who was part of the group of 15 ski jumpers that attempted to sue the Vancouver organizers to let them into the Games four years ago, hasn't always been so careful with her words.

In fact, in an interview with NBC last year, an epic tirade perfectly belittled the ridiculous argument that women shouldn't jump because of the potential effect on their reproductive system.

"My baby-making organs are on the inside," Van said at the time. "Men have an organ on the outside. So if it's not safe for me jumping down and my uterus is going to fall out, what about the organ on the outside of the body."

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @longleysunsport


Photos