Women ski jumpers rewarded for courage

Athletes are accustomed to being honored for what they do in competition, but even in these more enlightened times, female athletes are still engaged in equally important struggles that take place off the field.

Tonight in New York, the Women’s Sports Foundation will recognize the perseverance of the U.S. women’s ski jumping team and its backers by naming the jumpers recipients of the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. The jumpers waged a year-long fight to be included in the Olympics that culminated with last April’s International Olympic Committee vote to put the discipline on the schedule for Sochi 2014.

Team members Lindsey Van, Jessica Jerome and Alissa Johnson, along with former Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini -- president of the foundation that has funded the program for the last few years, with Visa as title sponsor -- will represent the team. Past recipients of the award include seminal influences and barrier-breakers like Olympic heptathlon and long jump champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, tennis legend Martina Navratilova, soccer pioneer Michelle Akers and jockey Julie Krone.

Why does this matter? Well, let’s face it, there aren’t that many obstacles to plain old inclusion any more, especially in this country. The steady stream of lawsuits and other initiatives in the 1970s and '80s by girls and their families seeking to let them play ball has slowly dwindled to a trickle as athletic opportunities have become both a legal right and a cultural given in our society. The battlegrounds these days are more subtle and tougher to track, like Title IX enforcement at the college level. (Read New York Times reporter Katie Thomas' excellent series report last spring for more on that.)

Any athlete that speeds down a 270-foot ramp at 50 or 60 miles per hour and launches herself airborne for a football field or two has some inborn courage, but it turns out the U.S. women jumpers -- joined by peers from other countries -- made their most meaningful landing when they sued for inclusion in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. They lost in court but eventually won the bigger-picture victory. The jumpers did have to “audition” in a sense when IOC representatives showed up at their events to judge the quality, but there's no doubt their courtroom action led to the boardroom discussion that unlocked the door.

The WSF award is a reminder that there is still bias and hypocrisy toward women’s sports that needs to be assertively addressed. Ski jumping, and the related discipline of Nordic Combined, were the only skiing events not open to women. Nordic Combined, the hybrid of jumping and cross-country skiing, is still not on the calendar, and as of yet there has been no organized movement to include it.

As I wrote previously, the argument that women’s ski jumping wasn’t “deep” enough to merit inclusion is absurd given the IOC’s willingness to add new “extreme” sports that have little or no history. How could the powers that be have expected women’s ski jumping to grow and improve when a primary stimulus to growth -- the Olympic status accorded to men -- was being blocked?

The first-ever top-tier World Cup event for women will be held Dec. 3 in Lillehammer, Norway, and five U.S. women will compete on the circuit. Those same athletes have been included in the U.S. ski federation’s elite training program, enabling them to draw on the considerable resources there. The last frontier for the U.S. women will be to see a World Cup event scheduled in their own country, a goal they hope to achieve before Sochi.

Finally, in January, 15-year-old Emilee Anderson of Eau Claire, Wis., will become the first-ever U.S. female ski jumper to participate in an IOC-sanctioned event when she competes in the 2012 Youth Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. She and the other teenagers there represent the shape of things to come.