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Female Athletes Break Barriers in Sochi, but Some Inequalities Still Exist

February 17, 2014

Christine Lobosco ’14  Women in Leadership

Undoubtedly the biggest headline last week in world news was the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Of course, this event always marks the commencement of exciting competition for the athletes, but this time, it means much more to female ski jumpers. These games will signify their long-awaited inclusion to the prestigious games.

Liz Clarke of The Washington Post reported that ever since the inaugural Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France in 1924, the ski jump event was only for male competitors. Ninety years later and after a decade long struggle, women won the right to compete in the event for the first time in Sochi. Women should have been able to compete much earlier especially because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1991 announced that all future Olympic sports must have events for both males and females. But, the ski jumping event and the Nordic combined event still only allowed males to compete.

It was not until 2006 when the International Ski Federation stood behind its female ski jumpers and asked the IOC to add women’s ski jumping to the 2010 Vancouver games, but the IOC again did not comply. Canadian lawyers, along with 13 female jumpers from Canada, the US, Germany and Norway, sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee. With US ski jumper Lindsey Vonn as the frontrunner of this fight, the group pushed for the 2014 games to include ski jumping and they at last saw victory.

Why have women never been able to compete in this event?  Vonn told The Boston Globe that one of the reasons might be because the sport is considered very extreme. Ski jumping is sometimes called the original extreme sport because one wrong movement while mid-air could make the competitor’s results extremely damaging. Vonn believes that officials may have not wanted to add women in the event because if women were involved it may make the sport “less extreme.”

Vonn also told The Boston Globe that ski jumping was traditionally male dominated and they did not want women “coming to the party.” Vonn has felt inequality in her sport for as long as she has ski jumped. She said in a press conference prior to the Sochi games that while the men competed in the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, she could test the slope for the men but not compete herself.

Officials have even said that women could not handle the intensities because ski jumping is a medical concern for women. But not a medical concern for men, apparently. NBC translated a quote from a men’s ski jumping coach from Russia for the Sochi games about women ski jumping. Alexander Arefyev said that if a woman was seriously injured from the sport, it would be much worse than if a man was. He continued to say that, “women have a different purpose – to have children, to do housework, and to create a family home.”  Surely this comment pushed female ski jumpers to prove themselves last Tuesday in Sochi even more.

And it did. The first ever Olympic women ski jumping event was thrilling to watch; anyone watching knew it was an important day for women’s rights. Although the medal ceremony did not display any Americans, the ski jumping that occurred that night was not about winning individually, it was about winning for women. American skiers Lindsey Vonn, Jessica Jerome, and Sarah Hendrickson simply wanted to be accepted and recognized as athletes at the World Games in a sport they have trained for all their lives. They gained this recognition on Tuesday. No matter what country they came from, the women rooted for each other, all knowing that they were making history. On the hill that night, Jerome told USA Today that she felt a special camaraderie among the other female competitors. With no medal in hand, it was more than enough to share the experience with the other women.

Although the Sochi Olympics mark a huge step forward for gender equality, there are still inequalities left for the IOC to change. USA Today’s Kelly Whiteside highlighted that even though female skiers can now jump, they cannot jump at the same height as men. Women can compete on the 95-meter hill, but not the 125-meter hill that men can. Additionally, there still exists one male-only event: the Nordic combined. As soon as the Sochi games are over, women skiers will start pushing for these inequalities to be changed.

But for now, let us applaud the huge barrier women skiers broke last week. Thanks to them, there is one less inequality for women to fight in the world today.

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