Women's jumpers still hoping for flight in 2010 Games
Oct. 8, 2009
By Beau Dure
U.S. women's ski jumpers are training in Park City, Utah, while pursuing a court case to make it to Whistler, British Columbia, for the 2010 Olympics. They might only make it as far as the nearby Sundance Film Festival.
Documentary maker Cara Perlman is shopping a film about the team to Sundance and other festivals. Sundance would make good timing, just a couple of weeks before the Olympics start with men's ski jumping
The documentary follows the jumpers through training and competition, including Lindsey Van's win at the first official world championship this year. It captures their joy at hearing in spring 2006 that the International Ski Federation had voted 114-1 to recommend women's jumping for inclusion in 2010. Then it captures their heartbreak at learning later that year that the International Olympic Committee disagreed.
"I think all of us are spent on words," jumper Alissa Johnson says. "We've asked in every way possible. We've been kind, we've been abrasive. We've gone by the rules and done everything to no avail."
Soccer star Brandi Chastain had little experience with ski jumping, but after seeing footage and being moved by the beauty of the sport and the emotion of their rejection, she signed on as the film's narrator.
"Our history in women's soccer seemed similar," Chastain says. "I could understand and empathize with these girls."
- Beau Dure
On Saturday, a couple of world champions will take flight at Lake Placid in the U.S. Championships for ski jumping and Nordic combined.
Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane are starting a season that will peak at the Olympics in February. Lindsey Van is not.
Unless Van and her fellow plaintiffs win an appeal of a court case to be heard in November, women's ski jumping won't be on the Olympic program.
The legal case is complex, attempting to hold the Olympics to Canadian law. A ruling in July found that the IOC's criteria on ski jumping were discriminatory but that VANOC, the organizing committee for the 2010 Games, was accountable to the IOC rather than the Canadian government.
In the meantime, U.S. women's jumpers are training for an uncertain season, jumping on the hills that hosted the 2002 Olympics in Utah.
"The question is always 'Are you training for the Olympics?'" Abby Hughes says.
They can compete in the Continental Cup circuit as they have for the past few years, but raising the money is a challenge. Facing a budget crunch in an Olympic year, the U.S. Ski Team cut off funding.
U.S. Nordic director John Farra has pledged to maintain female jumpers' access to training facilities and programs. And if the court finds in the women's favor in November, he says the federation would do what it can to help them get ready for the Games.
"I'd be excited to call an emergency meeting," Farra says. "We're best in the world right now. We have the first world champion in the sport. To say that we were crushed (not to get Olympic status) is an understatement."
Some funding is intact. Visa has maintained its sponsorship. Westminster College in Salt Lake City offers tuition support.
Aside from that, the women are raising funds however they can. Deedee Corradini, who was mayor of Salt Lake City when the city landed the 2002 Olympics, works with marketer Vic Method to lobby and raise cash. The jumpers sign and sell posters. An auction drew items ranging from local merchants' gift baskets to a football signed by Tom Brady.
Van auctioned off the skis on which she won the world title. The winning bidder spent $6,200 — then immediately handed the skis back to Van.
Even with such generosity, competing is costly. Promising young jumper Avery Ardovino isn't traveling to Europe to compete this season.
"With the economy especially, my parents can't just empty out their pockets on me," Ardovino says.
Alissa Johnson, whose brother Anders is one of the top men's jumpers in the country, overloads her schedule.
"I'm one of the older girls on the team," Johnson says. "It's really difficult for me because I'm trying to juggle college, working full time in a restaurant and trying to be an elite athlete. Those things can add up a lot, especially when you're not funded by a national governing body any more. My pockets right now are empty, so it's very difficult."
Up and down
The women's jumpers are still dealing with the aftereffects of two votes three years ago. In May 2006, the International Ski Federation (FIS) voted 114-1 to recommend women's ski jumping for the 2010 Olympic program. In November, the International Olympic Committe said no.
No one's really sure what changed between the two votes, though FIS President Gianfranco Kasper had already gone on record saying the sport might not be healthy for women.
"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," Kasper said in a 2005 NPR interview repeated in a 2006 ABC report on the eve of the Torino Games.
Van's rebuttal: "Even if it is dangerous, what does that matter? The men are doing it, and we're doing it. Every other sport like aerials and downhill racing — is that not dangerous? Ski jumping is a fairly safe sport — safer than the rest of these sports in the Olympics. We have so much experience and it's so technical that it is very safe."
One possible factor: Americans haven't been successful recently in lobbying within the IOC, as seen in Chicago's fourth-place finish in bidding to host the 2016 Games.
"A lot of the other countries just wait and see what happens," Van says. "We're a little more progressive in trying to push the sport and make things happen instead of waiting. We feel that with waiting, nothing was going to happen. Of course, we're Americans, we push everything. But somebody has to do it, or we're going to be stuck where we are forever.
Women's soccer pioneer Brandi Chastain, who narrates a documentary about the team, knew little about the sport before working on the film and was stunned by what she discovered.
"I'm shocked," Chastain says. "I am absolutely shocked to know that in this day and age, that these women compete yet they're not allowed to compete at the highest level. They jump off the same jumps. It doesn't cost any money for them to jump off those jumps. I'm astounded there are people out there who are in charge who make this kind of asinine decision."
Well after the IOC vote, IOC members — including President Jacques Rogge— have claimed the sport doesn't have enough participants, the sport hasn't had the required two world championships, and the sport hasn't achieved the necessary "technical merit."
The rebuttals from women's ski jumping advocates — ski jumping has more female participants than skicross (added for 2010, necessitating a new facility), the Olympic charter has been revised to remove the "two world championships" rule that was already erratically enforced, and what is "technical merit," anyway? Van holds the record for longest jump on the normal hill at the Olympic venue in Whistler.
The court ruling in July noted that men's ski jumping also didn't have enough participants but was kept in through an "Olympic tradition" provision.
"I am satisfied that the differential treatment of the plaintiffs resulting from the application of the Olympic Charter Rules that grandfather men's ski jumping, while requiring women's ski jumping events to meet the criteria for the inclusion of new events, discriminates against the plaintiffs in a substantive sense," Justice L.A. Fenton wrote in her July ruling.
But Fenton didn't rule in favor of the plaintiffs because the Olympic program is set by the IOC. With that in mind, Canadian law against discrimination can't apply because VANOC can't stage an Olympic ski jumping event without the IOC.
In theory, the court could find in favor of the plaintiffs and force VANOC to give up on ski jumping altogether, cancelling the event or moving it to another country. No one expects that to happen. The idea of the suit, Corradini says, is to force the IOC to add the women's event to save the men's event.
The IOC has made some conciliatory steps, including women's jumping in the new Youth Olympic Games in 2012. That's good news for 15-year-old Sarah Hendrickson, who has already won on the Continental Cup circuit. The other U.S. jumpers would face a long wait until 2014, and inclusion in those Games still isn't guaranteed.
"We're not giving up on 2010," Corradini says.