Women ski jumpers take Olympic hopes to court
PARK CITY, Utah -- The world's top women ski jumpers can set record after record this season. Their distances and style points will not get them into the 2010 Winter Olympics.
A Canadian court could, however, if it rules in favor of a lawsuit filed by a group of jumpers trying to get women's ski jumping into the Vancouver Games.
Over the past three years, they have gone from elation over expectations of an Olympic debut to the disappointment of being told that it wasn't going to happen. Now the jumpers' Olympic hopes appear to be somewhere between those extremes heading toward an April 20 date with the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
"People are getting your hopes up constantly. They tell you it's a sure thing, and then they break your heart because it's not," said Jessica Jerome, an American who is among the 10 plaintiffs. "I just try to jump far and stay out of it."
The group is suing the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) in an attempt to get around the International Olympic Committee's decision not to add the sport to the 2010 lineup. The lawsuit alleges that excluding women from an event that men have been competing in since the first Winter Games violates Canadian law against gender discrimination.
A court order would be a back door into the Olympics, but the top female jumpers in the world feel that is the only option they have left with the games just over a year away.
"I'm optimistic about it right now, but who knows what's going to happen? It's up to the courts now," said Lindsey Van, a U.S. teammate of Jerome's who is also part of the lawsuit. "I try not to think about it. It's too stressful."
That's right -- it's more stressful for Van and Jerome to think about the lawsuit than it is for them to soar through the air with a giant pair of skis fastened to their feet.
Women's jumping will be included at the upcoming World Championships for the first time thanks to a May 2006 vote by the International Ski Federation. The women hoped getting approval to compete in Liberec, Czech Republic, in February would convince the IOC to make an exception to its requirement that a sport must have contested at least two world championships before it can become an Olympic event.
The IOC's ruling came down in November 2006 -- no exception would be granted.
The 21-year-old Jerome is from Park City, home of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. She says it has been difficult to train next to U.S. Alpine and cross country skiers who can strive for the Olympics every four years.
"It's pretty disheartening," she said.
Although women's ski jumping is still developing as far as the IOC is concerned, the jumpers themselves are hardly novices. They zip down the same jumps as the men and soar through the air for 100 meters or more before their skis clatter to the snow as they plunge toward the bottom of the hill.
Jerome is thankful to have Continental Cup events and the upcoming World Championships to keep her busy as the court date draws closer. She was not holding out much hope that the IOC would change the stance it has held for the last two years.
The IOC has maintained that the discrimination claim is misleading, saying women's ski jumping did not make the cut because it was not yet developed enough to be an Olympic sport.
But the jumpers aren't suing the Swiss-based IOC.
"VANOC is hosting the games and they're the ones that are bound by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," said Ross Clark, the Vancouver-based attorney who is representing the jumpers.
VANOC says the IOC decides what is and isn't going to be an Olympic sport, stating quite plainly in court documents that "the plaintiffs have sued the wrong defendant."
Clark disagrees. The IOC may have made the call on excluding women's jumping, but he says the international agency does not supersede Canadian federal law.
VANOC officials declined to comment for this story beyond the previously released statement saying the final decision was the IOC's.
"This is a matter that is currently before the courts and understandably we can provide no new comment," the committee said in a statement.
There are 10 women from six countries challenging VANOC in the lawsuit. Clark had never seen any of them jump until the Continental Cup hit Utah Olympic Park on Dec. 5. He was impressed by their jumping and bothered that the women would not be competing when his country hosts its first Olympics since Calgary in 1988.
Clark will need to convince the provincial Supreme Court that VANOC falls under government regulations because it receives "substantial" public funds and is controlled by the Canadian government. The jumps at Whistler Olympic Park were built with public funding and as of now will be used only for men's events during the Olympics.
"If they're considered to be government, they're bound by law against discrimination," Clark said.
The other part of Clark's strategy is establishing the discrimination claim. If the judges disagree with either premise, Clark says the jumpers will need to shift their hopes to trying to convince the IOC in time for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
VANOC, the IOC and even Clark would be happy to see the dispute resolved before the April court date. But the jumpers aren't going to drop the lawsuit and IOC hasn't budged.
IOC president Jacques Rogge said during a pre-Olympic visit to Vancouver last winter that women's jumping probably has a future in the Olympics, but not yet because the sport doesn't have enough competitors to meet Olympic standards.
Clark notes in the lawsuit that men's and women's ski cross, Olympic newcomers in 2010, had fewer competitors than women jumping on the Continental Cup circuit when the IOC made its decision.
The lawsuit includes injunctions that would require VANOC to add women's jumping to the Olympic schedule or block the men's competitions.
Ski jumping and the Nordic combined, which includes jumping, are the only events on the 2010 schedule that do not include women's competitions, according to the lawsuit.
If the court decides in favor of the jumpers, VANOC could have some logistical juggling to do in the months before the games begin. Even if the lawsuit fails, the issue could linger for VANOC and IOC.
Clark says public support for the jumpers has been growing since the lawsuit was filed in May. People don't see a rationale for keeping women out of the competition.
"It's going to be nice to wear a white hat for a change," Clark said.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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