When asked in third grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I confidently responded, “A ski jumper.” My turn had come towards the end of a classroom discussion, and all the usual “best” answers had already been taken: astronaut, president, and veterinarian. Not one to go for the humdrum or the obvious choices for girls at that time—nurse or teacher—I thought ski jumper sounded thrilling and valorous.
It was a remarkable pronouncement for several reasons. First and foremost, I did not ski. Nobody in my family skied. We played poker and canasta.
Sure, like much of America in the 1970s, we avidly watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…” We tuned in each week to gasp and cringe as Vinko Bogataj—ski jumping for the former Yugoslavia—crashed spectacularly during the opening montage. (A clip so well known that American humorist Rich Hall coined a term for watching the wreck over and over: “agonosis”.) We fancied ourselves armchair Jim McKays and judged the finer points of ski jumping while sipping cocoa from our well-worn couch. But, I tell you, we did not ski.
The other considerable obstacle to my Olympic ski jumping ambition was that women were not allowed to compete in this event. In fact, this year will mark the very first time that women will compete in Olympic ski jumping. When those gals launch themselves off the ramp in Sochi, they’ll represent a dream launched many years ago but grounded repeatedly by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).The IOC announced in 1991 that all future Olympic sports would be open to both genders, but this decision excluded all the initial events from the first Winter Games in 1924. Women ski jumpers have petitioned the IOC since 1998 to be able to compete.
Sexism is one reason for the prohibition. Rex Bell, chief of competition at Harris Hill—Brattleboro’s own world-class ski jumping venue—told the Boston Globe in 2012, “The old-timers would say it’s too dangerous for the girls, they’ll fall and get hurt, they won’t be able to have kids, they were not strong enough.”
But it’s not just the “old-timers” with antiquated views of women’s fragility and reproductive health. In 2005 Gian Franco Kasper, FIS (Fédration Internationale de Ski) president and member of the IOC, argued that women shouldn’t participate in ski jumping because the sport “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” U.S. ski jumper Lindsey Van notes that men’s reproductive organs are on the outside of the body.
The female fragility argument—a remarkably tenacious holdover from the Victorian era—is certainly one reason why women’s ski jumping has struggled to gain legitimacy. The other is that the IOC has strict rules about “necessary technical criteria” required for a new event to be included in the games. Claire Suddath, writing in TIME magazine, asserts that women’s ski jumping needed a world championship event before it would be considered world-class caliber. As recently as 2006, the best women ski jumpers competed in the FIS Continental Cup (considered less competitive than a world championship) and had been doing so for only two years. The sport needed more competitive credibility on the world stage.
The IOC’s other main argument, that there weren’t enough women ski jumpers worldwide, seems more of a snow job; women’s ski jumping had more competitors from more countries in 2010 than many other winter sports included in the Olympics. According to the Women’s Ski Jumping USA website, at the time of the Vancouver Olympics, women’s ski jumping had 83 athletes from 14 nations ready to compete; skeleton had only 39 athletes from 12 nations.
Whatever the exact constellation of impediments, women’s ski jumpers finally have their long-fought victory; now they can concentrate on their training. This week the U.S. Women’s Ski Jumping team was announced, and it includes star jumper Lindsey Van, the tenacious Sarah Hendrickson—coming back from a knee injury—and three-time national champion Jessica Jerome. They will all have their sights set on Japan’s Sara Takanashi who is favored to win the gold.
As Russian security forces attempt to create a “ring of steel” around the Sochi Olympic Village, and governments around the world fear for their athletes’ safety, there is real danger that we will watch the popular summer resort become a high profile venue for two warring parties craving the international spotlight. But you don’t have to pay tribute to Putin’s “colossal authoritarian branding”—in the words of Russia historian Leon Aron—by attending the Olympics in Sochi. You can watch dozens of world-class ski jumpers right here in Brattleboro (from the comfort of a heated beer tent) at the Harris Hill Ski Jump the weekend of February 15th and 16th. Go to www.harrishillskijump.com/ to learn more.
We are terribly lucky to have this special event here in Brattleboro. Every member of this year’s Olympic team once competed at Harris Hill. Our hometown ski jump offers the rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of future men and women Olympians as they fly hundreds of feet—at speeds up to 60 mph—and land on a lowly corn field. How perfectly Vermont.
I never did become a ski jumper, despite my 3rd grade ambitions, but there will be countless children finding inspiration and aspiration at Harris Hill as they watch those skiers soar.