On Monday night in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Norway’s Maren Lundby quite literally flew through a blizzard in order to win the gold medal in the women’s ski jumping event at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
It was another moment of triumph, not just for Lundby, but for women ski jumpers (who were permitted to compete in the Olympics for the very first time four years ago in Sochi) and for women athletes as a whole.
It was also a reminder that the fight for equality at the Olympics is far from over. Because while the female ski jumpers who didn’t make it to the top of the podium — including silver medalist Katharina Althaus from Germany, bronze medalist Sara Takanashi from Japan, and U.S. ski jumpers Sarah Hendrickson, Abby Ringquist, and Nita Englund — will have to wait another four years for their next shot at Olympic gold, their male counterparts will have two more chances to compete in Pyeongchang — in the large hill individual event and the large hill team event. (The men already competed on the normal hill, which is the same hill the women competed on.)
How nice would it be to have more than one event at the Olympics? Equality dreams.
— Sarah Hendrickson (@schendrickson) February 1, 2018
Sure, we’ve come a long way since the first Winter Olympics in 1924, when only 11 of the 258 athletes were women, and all of those were figure skaters. Four years ago in Sochi, women made up 40 percent of the competitors. This year, 43 percent of 2,920 athletes in Pyeongchang are women. But throughout the Winter Olympics schedule, there are frequent reminders that in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee, women are still less than. ln biathlon, women compete in shorter distances than men in every event — individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start, and relay. The same goes for the women in cross-country skiing and long-track speedskating. In bobsleigh, the men have two events — two-man and four-man — compared to only one (of course, still called two-man) for the women. The men’s hockey tournament has 12 teams, compared to only eight for the women.
But no sport exemplifies the opportunity gap like ski jumping. Not only do male ski jumpers have three events compared to one for the women, but Nordic combined — a sport that involves both cross-country skiing and ski jumping — has three events for men, and zero events for women.
Lindsey Van, a retired American ski jumper who was one of the leaders of the campaign to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics, has heard every excuse in the book for why women’s ski jumping shouldn’t be encouraged or supported. The most infuriating — and frequent — reason that she and her fellow trailblazers were given?
“That our uteruses would fall off,” she told ThinkProgress.
In case you think she’s kidding — an understandable reaction — in 2005, Gian Franco Kasper, the president of the International Ski Federation (FIS), the governing body of the sport, told NPR that ski jumping “seems to not be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” As recently as 2014, a Russian ski jumping coach said that ski jumping wasn’t appropriate for women because “women have another purpose—to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.”
The outspoken Van, who won the very first women’s ski jumping world championships in 2009, and came in 15th at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, never had any patience for those who were concerned about the safety of her reproductive organs.
“Ours are on the inside, and they’re very well protected. And theirs is literally hanging outside their body.” Van said. “You tell me which is safer. So, when they’re like, ‘Yeah, your uteruses will fall out,’ I’m like, ‘Well, you better check their boots for their balls.'”
Van has a different theory about why the sport has been so slow to embrace gender equality: the fact that men and women jump very comparable distances. Some of the sport’s elite women athletes can even jump farther than the elite men. Going into the 2010 Vancouver Games, Van actually held the K95 hill record at the site of the Olympic ski jumping events; the only man at the normal hill event who surpassed her record was Simon Ammann from Switzerland, who won the gold medal. Because there was no women’s event at that Olympics, Van had to watch from afar.
“In every other sport you can see that gender gap. Then in ski jumping, there is hardly any gender gap, it’s smaller than any other sport,” Van said, adding that the gap actually gets smaller when the hills get larger, because it becomes less about power and more about technique. “I don’t think that does our sport favors. I think people see that and they want to bury it,” she says.
“It’s one of those original extreme sports, so if women are doing it, is it as extreme? Is it perceived as as extreme?”
Outdated notions of what the female body is capable of were used to limit opportunities for women in sports; now that so many of those notions have been proven false, both by science and by show, it seems like the opportunities for women in sports are still being limited arbitrarily just because they can be, as a way to send the message that women are inferior.
That’s hard to prove on paper, of course, but it would explain both why women have been excluded from competitive opportunities in some sports, and why their distances have been capped shorter than the men’s distances in other sports.
Molly Peters, the head nordic coach at Saint Michael’s College, told Faster Skier in 2016 that she had made it her mission to get the NCAA to make its ski racing distances for men and women equal.
“How are men ever going to look at women equally and how are women ever going to look at themselves as being equal if you’re always skiing 5 kilometers less?” Peters said.
Before the 2018 Games, the IOC had a press conference and announced a vague outline of a 25-step plan that is designed to advance gender equality. The IOC already ruled in 1991 that every sport added to the Olympics must have a men’s and women’s event, but that rule didn’t apply to events that already existed. One of these initiatives is to increase women’s participation in the Olympics to 50 percent.
“Having visible female role models is one of the most important things that we as an organization do,” four-time ice hockey world champion Angela Ruggerio, a senior American IOC board member, told Reuters in Pyeongchang. “(It) sends a very strong message to the world in terms of what’s possible.”
Van was disappointed that there wasn’t a bigger push to get more women’s ski jumping events added in Pyeongchang after the success of the event in Sochi, but she insists that there are some positive signs. This World Cup season kicked off in December with the top 30 women in the World Cup rankings having an opportunity to compete off of the large hill in Lillehammer, Norway, and the addition of a women’s team event in Zao, Japan and Hinterzarten, Germany. Last year, there was a women’s Nordic combined event at the U.S. championships for the first time, and the FIS has stated its intention to hold a women’s Nordic combined event this World Cup season, and to hopefully get the event added to the schedule at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
But Van has learned not to trust the IOC or FIS too much when it comes to gender equality promises. She knows that it’s ultimately going to be up to the athletes to keep up the fight for equality. And she hopes that this generation of jumpers is up for it.
“It’s going to take a lot of people bugging and bugging them,” she said. “Nobody wants to do it, but somebody has to do it. They have to get to the point where enough’s enough.”