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Michele Morris Headshot

Olympic Gender Discrimination

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This is a tale of two ski jumpers, one male, one female. Anders Johnson, 20, ranked 100th in the world, made the US Olympic team for the second time and headed for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. His sister Alissa, 22, who is ranked 11th in the world, did not go to the Olympics. In fact, no woman will have the chance to jump for Olympic gold. That's because ski jumping, one of the original winter Olympic events, still holds a male-only competition, the only Olympic sport to do so.

The dispute over letting women fly is almost as old as the sport itself. Ski jumping was developed by the intrepid Norwegians who climbed up hills on their skis and then skied back down, jumping over obstacles. By the middle of the 19th century, ski jumping had evolved into a sport that attracted high-spirited, thrill-seeking skiers. The first woman on record to hurl herself off a jump at an international competition was an Austrian countess, Paula Lamberg, who in 1911 jumped 22 meters -- in a skirt! Girls, dressed as boys, competed at Nordic competitions until the 1950s when doctors insisted that ski jumping was too dangerous for girls and could affect their fertility.

While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn't wave the fertility card, its reasons for keeping women off the hill are specious and dubious. The IOC's most contorted argument is that this is a new discipline that requires extensive review and committee approval. But only women's ski jumping is new: men's ski jumping has been an Olympic sport since the first winter games were held in Chamonix, France in 1924. The women's competition requires no new facilities or rules, merely additional time on the Olympic schedule.

Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, insists that allowing the women to jump would "dilute the medals." There are only 185 elite women jumpers compared to 2500 men, he points out. Numbers didn't seem to matter when the IOC added snow cross, a roller-derby type of event on snow, to the Vancouver Olympics despite the fact that that only 135 women compete internationally.

This boils down to the age-old chicken and her egg problem. Without financial support from national Olympic committees (NOCs), the sport attracts fewer competitors -- and without Olympic status, NOCs are less likely to support the sport. And why take up ski jumping, young girls might ask when they can ski downhill, slalom or freestyle and make an Olympic team? Paying their own way at international competitions, women ski jumpers are second-class citizens who often sleep on sofas, floors and even barn lofts, while the male jumpers are put up in hotel rooms -- along with all the other skiers.

The women ski jumpers have history on their side and they should have the law. Thirty-seven years ago the U.S. Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendment, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational programs, and activities that receive federal financial assistance. That didn't make a difference at the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002. The women hoped that in 2010 Canada, with its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which prohibits discrimination based on gender, would provide a friendlier venue. In 2008 women ski jumpers launched a lawsuit against the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) seeking to participate in the 2010 Winter Games. The Canadian Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court ruling that acknowledged gender discrimination as well as VANOC's status as a government entity, but the court refused to hold the IOC to Canada's human rights charter.

The IOC has managed to institutionalize discrimination against women athletes and violate national human rights codes. Keeping the women jumpers out of the games is blatant gender discrimination by most standards, which US and Canadian law expressly prohibits. Moreover, it violates the spirit of the Olympics, whose own charter seeks "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."

To be sure, there isn't room on the Olympic program for every sport that wants in. But the case of the women ski jumpers is particularly egregious because they have been held to a higher standard than other sports. They have watched new sports for men and women added to the Olympics -- snowboarding, moguls and aerials -- and they have watched women skeleton racers and bobsledders allowed in the gate. Despite their persistence, training and legal battles, the women jumpers still find themselves left out in the cold.

"This is the 21st century," points out Lindsey Van, 27, one of the world's top women ski jumpers who has been training for almost 20 years and dreaming of one day earning an Olympic medal. "It feels like we're in the '50s and '60s pushing women's rights. This should not be happening now." While the world watches men jump for gold on Vancouver's 300-foot ski jump, Van, who holds the world's record of both men and women on that hill, will be watching from the sidelines, despite the fact that she has proven that women can fly, while the IOC's old men dig in their heels and stick in the mud.

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