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Women make history in ski jumping

Carina Vogt wins historic gold in ski jumping
Carina Vogt wins historic gold in ski jumping
Vianney Thibaut/Agence Zoom

Thurday's medals ceremony for the first-in-history women's ski jump marks the end of a 90-year battle by women to break into this sport at Olympic levels. It was a day of upsets that saw the favorite, Japan's Sara Takanashi, not making the podium. No American made the podium either. Germany's Carina Vogt soared to the gold, with Austria's Daniela Iraschko-Stolz taking the silver and France's Coline Mattel the bronze.

As recently as 2006, an international group of 500 women ski jumpers were still trying to get FIS permission to go to the IOC for inclusion in the Olympic program. Yet the chairman of the FIS Council had recently gone on record on NPR protesting that the jarring of a ski-jump landing "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."

From the Victorian beginnings of the Olympic movement, men had appointed themselves the guardians of women's allegedly delicate reproductive organs, alleging that this or that sport could jar a lady's uterus loose from its inner moorings. At the first modern Olympics in 1896, which were organized by a group of powerful conservative male society figures, women weren't allowed to compete at all. By 1900, women had their foot in the door, but only in the socially-approved activities of golf and lawn tennis.

When the Winter Games were launched in 1924, women were allowed to compete only in figure-skating, and were prohibited from doing jumps on the ice. Not until 1948 did women Olympians get access to some alpine skiing events. But they were still barred from the ski jump, which had emerged as a sport in Norway in the mid-1800s.

By the late 1960s, when I got involved in the emerging sport of long-distance running, that old Victorian bugaboo about women's uteruses were still an issue. While men were sanctioned to run at distances of up to 50 miles, women had fought a huge battle with the U.S. athletics establishment to be able to run the half mile. The majority of U.S. athletics authorities were convinced that the jarring of every footstep of 26.2 miles of the marathon would damage a woman's childbearing abilities. By 1972, women were finally running officially in U.S. marathons. Yet it took another decade of politicking before the first women's Olympic marathon came off at the Los Angeles Summer Games in 1984.

Yet the old overprotective attitudes were still barring women from the Olympic ski jump.

Fortunately, in 2006, the FIS was finally convinced to greenlight women's ski jumping. The athletes could now approach the IOC...who proceeded to deny the women entrance into the Vancouver Winter Games. The women sued the IOC in court in Canada, and lost, on grounds that Canada lacked jurisdiction over the IOC. But IOC permission finally came, for women to ski-jump at Sochi.

The door hasn't been opened all the way yet. The IOC has limited women to jumping only on the normal hill. Whereas men jump on the normal hill, the big hill and they also have a team event. Yet women are proving they can jump as far as the men -- indeed, their lighter weight gives them an advantage in the air (which is why male ski jumpers try to pare off pounds and often look anorexic.) Lindsey Van of the U.S. team has recorded a normal-hill jump of 105.5 meters, equaling men's jumps on that venue. At Sochi, the Austrian silver medalist touched down at a convincing 104.5 meters.

Economically, American women's ski jumping still operates on a tiny budget, according to Women's Ski Jumping USA. But with the huge exposure at Sochi, that will hopefully change. VISA has been on board since 2006, sponsoring the women's team. VISA also invested in the Sochi ad featuring Sarah Hendrickson and a quote from Amelia Earhart about women's challenges. The ad has already aired many times daily, and sends a clear message that women's ski jumping has definitely taken off.