Good news for people with ovaries: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally thinks your reproductive organs are sturdy enough to compete in ski jumping. The 2014 Sochi Olympics mark the first time women have ever been allowed to compete in the sport on an Olympic level.
Women ski jumpers have petitioned to compete in every winter Olympics since 1998, until recently to no avail. In 2006, the International Ski Federation decided to allow women to compete in ski jumping in the 2009 Nordic World Ski Championships. They also submitted a request for women to be allowed to compete in the 2010 Olympics, but their petition was denied. Finally, in 2011, the IOC decided it would allow women to ski jump in the 2014 Olympics.
So what took so long? The official reason cited by the IOC when they rejected the petition for the 2010 Olympics was that women’s ski jumping wasn’t established enough as a sport. They claimed that there weren’t enough top competitors worldwide to justify an Olympic event. (At the time, women’s ski jumping had more elite competitors than several other recognized Olympic sports.) But there are deeper, more ridiculous reasons why women’s ski jumping has long been denied as a sport: people think women’s bodies, specifically their reproductive organs, can’t handle it.
The belief that rigorous exercise, especially big jumps and hard landings, can kill a woman’s baby making abilities dates all the way back to the Renaissance. And despite the fact that these ideas were disproved long ago, they still manage to stick around. Here’s what Gian Franco Kasper of the International Ski Federation said in 2005:
“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.”
And what the Russian men’s ski jumping coach, Alexander Arefyev, said in an interview published yesterday:
“I admit, I do not advocate women’s ski jumping. It is quite heavy and traumatic sport. If a man were seriously injured, it is not fatal, but for all women may end up far worse. If I had a daughter, never would give in jumping — it’s too hard work. Women have a different purpose — to have children, do housework, to create a family home.”
Hmm. Interestingly enough, despite all this concern for fragile, fragile uteri, women have been allowed to act as “forerunners” for years. This means they jump on the Olympic course to test it for the men and make sure conditions are optimal. So women were considered skilled enough to test the Olympic course, but not to compete on it. The problem with that is that ski jumping may actually be the sport with the smallest margin between top male and top female competitors. There is almost no difference.
The Sochi Olympics are certainly going to be interesting. World champion Sarah Hendrickson, generally considered to be the best American ski jumper, has just returned to ski jumping after sustaining an injury during a training jump in August. She actually injured herself because she jumped too far. If she had landed the jump, it would have been a world record for both men and women. But she jumped so far that she went past the normal, sloped landing area of the jump and fell on the flat area beyond. Now that she is jumping again, she may get to compete in Sochi. It’s up to the coaches to decide.
With Hendrickson in limbo, the current frontrunner is Sara Takanashi of Japan, a 17-year-old who just won a world cup event. The New York Times Magazine has a very cool profile on the American women – all from Park City, Utah – preparing for the Olympics. Check it out!