Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Canadian Women Can't Jump

The International Olympic Committee continued their long history of dubious decisions last Thursday, when president Jacques Rogge made the brilliant comment that including women's ski jumping would dilute the value of an Olympic medal.
"If you have three medals, with 80 athletes competing on a regular basis internationally, the percentage of medal winners is extremely high," Rogge said.

"In any other sport you are speaking about hundreds of thousands, if not tens of millions of athletes, at a very high level, competing for one single medal. We do not want the medals to be diluted and watered down. That is the bottom line."

You'd think the head of the IOC would be compelled to educate himself on the sports his organization offers, at least. Most Winter Olympics sports have nowhere near the hundreds of thousands of athletes Rogge so glibly mentions competing. Consider ski cross, a much newer sport that the IOC has deigned to include. According to the Globe and Mail's Rod Mickleburgh, it's been estimated that there are 30 competitors worldwide in ski cross. Rogge eloquently defended the decision to include ski cross but leave women's ski jumping out, saying that ski cross is "immensely popular, maybe not in your country, but in Europe. And the technical and participation level is okay for the Olympic Games." So a participation level of 30 people is okay in a sport that's only been around for a short time, but having 135 (note: considerably higher than the 80 Rogge pulled out of thin air) women registered as active jumpers with the International Ski Federation in a sport women have competed in since 1924.

The interesting thing is it's the sport's long history that's partially to blame for the IOC's decision. All sports introduced since 1991 have had to allow for both men's and women's competition, but ski jumping was introduced in 1924 and thus has a historical exemption. Rogge denies that this is discrimination, though. "This was absolutely not a gender issue," he said. "Our decision would have been exactly the same, if it had been boys instead of girls."

In a different article, Rogge continued shooting off his mouth, making broad claims that proved he hadn't done his homework. "This is not discrimination," he said sternly. "This is just the respect of essential technical rules that say to become an Olympic sport, a sport must be widely practised around the world . . . and have a big appeal. This is not the case for women's ski jumping so there is no discrimination whatsoever.

Rogge is way off here. This is discrimination, pure and simple, as David Emerson, the government minister responsible for the Olympics stated. ""Ski jumping is an important sport and we're investing a lot in jumping and training facilities in Canada and to not have women able to participate on the same basis as men, to me, I just don't think that's right," he said.

As Deedee Corradini, the former mayor of Salt Lake City and president of Women's Ski Jumping USA, pointed out, ski jumping proponents have addressed every single concern raised by the IOC. The numbers show that the IOC's dilution fears are unwarranted―there are 34 women from 10 nations in snowboard cross, 30 women from 11 nations in skier cross and 26 women from 13 nations in bobsled. The "it needs more time" argument is plainly ridiculous given the history of women competing in ski jumping. The technical standard argument is also flawed: as Ski Jumping Canada said in a press release, "If the top women ski jumpers, many of whom have been competing for a number of years, do not define the technical standard, then the IOC is setting a threshold for the women that is unfair and exclusionary." Ron Read, high performance director for the Canadian Ski Jumping Association, said that women's ski jumping would be one of the more competitive Olympic sports if it was included. "If you took all 13 of the Winter Olympic sports, I believe women's ski jumping would be in the top half for numbers, for a competitive field," he said.

The argument about a lack of interest is also flawed: this is the Olympics, after all , featuring such popular competitions as Nordic skiing and biathalon. After all of the controversy surrounding women's ski jumping, I think it would probably be one of the more popular events of the 2010 Winter Games. As Matt Chesser of the McGill Tribune points out in his excellent piece on the subject, though, the whole popularity line of reasoning is particularly dumb when it comes from an organization that thrives on unpopular sports.

"Even if we grant that Rogge was trying to make a crude point about the lack of popularity of female ski jumping, aren't the Olympics at least partly about recognizing obscure sports that no one would otherwise watch?" Chesser writes. "How is women's ski jumping any less of a "mainstream" sport than women's skeleton? Very few people would give a second thought to sports like skeleton and cross country skiing if it they weren't gussied up by the patriotic propaganda that accompanies the Olympic games-that's why amateur athletics and the IOC itself rely partly on government handouts. And any sporting event that accepts public funding should have to provide equal opportunities, within reason, for both genders."

Segregation was supposed to have ended long ago, but apparently it's still common at the IOC (which after all, is largely a group of old, white men). "To have a men's only sign on these ski jumps seems to be discriminatory and contrary to Canada's own human rights act," Corradini points out. I agree: it's an absolute travesty that ski jumping should be the only single-gender sport at these Games. So much for the Olympics promoting equality.

Related: My previous column in the Journal on said issue.

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