As the Winter Olympics approach, millions across the country are already setting their DVRs for their favorite televised events, from figure-skating and hockey, to the luge and the giant slalom. As always, I'll probably catch a little bit of everything -- but there's one event I'll be sure to watch from start to finish: the women's ski jump.
You read that right. This year, for the first time in Olympic history, women will be permitted to compete in this event. So why have they been previously denied the opportunity? Because of...wait for it...their uteruses.
You read that right, too. While Olympic officials have frequently maintained that the former ban was simply a technical one (the event was too small, some said; and women weren't particularly good at it, others claimed), the real reason for our entire gender's exclusion from the event was because it could potentially affect our ability to make babies. Or so some men believed.
In her book, Playing The Game: Sports and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914, author Kathleen E. McCrone traces the bizarre ban to Victorian England, where a fellow named Donald Walker laid down the law in his 1837 book, "Exercise for Ladies." Bicycling and horseback riding were no-nos for women, Walker argued, because such strenuous activity could "deform the lower part of the body," contracting vaginas, collapsing uteruses and seriously threatening the likelihood of any future baby showers.
Therefore, Walker concluded, women's physical activity should be "restrained and non-violent" in order to safeguard their "peculiar function of multiplying the species."
Thanks, Donny. If we knew you cared so much about our uteruses, we would have worn them on the outside.
But we don't, of course -- and that's what makes the former ban so galling. For all the advances of the feminist movement -- not to mention science -- some men of power continue to insinuate themselves inside of women's bodies (and not in the good way). We've seen it in their discussions of women's fitness for combat; women's reproductive health choices, and (still, unbelievably) women's ability to think straight during menstruation.
Sports, in particular, have been an historic battleground for women's equality, from the Title IX fights 40 years ago, to women's hard-fought (and hard-won) inclusion in the Boston Marathon. As for the ski jump flap, as recently as 2005, the president of the International Ski Federation, Gian Franco Kasper, continued to defend the wacky womb-worry rationale, telling NPR: "Don't forget, it's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."
Oh, Gian Franco. Really?
Thankfully, women have been speaking out about the issue, exposing the ludicrousness of the ban and celebrating its overturn. Lead among these voices is 29-year-old world champion jumper, Lindsay Van, who was a driving force behind securing women's right to participate (at one point, suing the organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympics). Having harbored Olympic dreams since she first donned skis as a little girl, Lindsay was shut out of competing in the Games every four years, even in 2002, when they were hosted by her home state of Utah -- where she was enlisted to test the jump for men but not invited to compete. (Yep, that's right -- she could brave those runs for the guys, but she couldn't jump the jumps for herself. Okaaay....).
Now Lindsay feels vindicated. She also maintains that the real reason for the former ban is that officials were worried that women would outshine -- and possibly outscore -- the men in the Olympic event, as they have done in figure skating and gymnastics. And that could very well turn out to be the case.
As for the dubious uterus argument, Lindsay was refreshingly frank about it in an interview last year on NBC News:
"It just makes me nauseous," she said. "Like, I want to vomit. I'm sorry, but my baby-making organs are on the inside. 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?"
Give that girl a medal.
As Lindsey takes her proud place on the women's jump team in Sochi this week, let's all be sure to tune in and cheer on the team. Because when they're soaring through the air like the snowbirds they are -- whether they medal or not -- what a true joy it will be to watch them, at long last, in flight.
Good luck in the Games, Team America!