In 2002 I met American ski jumpers Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome. At the time they were goofy teenagers with an intense desire to jump off of the sides of mountains at upwards of 60 miles per hour. A couple of months prior to our introduction Van and Jerome had warmed up the ski jumps for the men at the 2002 Olympic Games in their hometown of Park City, Utah. Van had been jumping since she was a child and knew the games were coming to Salt Lake City for several years prior. She was interviewed by several media outlets and even featured in a Warren Miller film (Freeriders) and every time she said the same thing, “I want to compete in the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.” However, her dream of jumping in the Olympics in her hometown never came to pass.
My filmmaker partner and I made a documentary film about Van and Jerome from 2002 to 2005. At the time they were hoping to be included into the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. However, the International Ski Federation denied them the opportunity to compete in a World Cup, a requisite precursor to the Olympics, and the women were barred from the games again.
“It’s absolutely absurd, absolutely ridiculous,” top American jumper Lindsey Van said last season. “It’s 2009 and this is almost like a joke. I don’t have words for it anymore, it’s so beyond maddening.”
After beating their heads against the stone wall of the IOC – their view – Van and 14 other women jumpers filed a lawsuit against VANOC, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Their basis? Canada has laws against gender discrimination, VANOC is a quasi-governmental organization, and $120 million in public funds have been spent on athletic facilities at the Vancouver Games. They lost, and then appealed to the Canadian Supreme Court, which has decided not to hear the case. Attorney Ross Clark, lead counsel for the women, said,
“We are very disappointed the Supreme Court of Canada does not view this as matter of national importance and will not have the opportunity to hear our arguments. This case was not just about women ski jumpers. The textbook gender discrimination found by the lower court judge should have been examined by the highest court in the land in light of its significance to our Charter case.”
The reasons for not allowing women to ski jump at the Olympic level are varied. First, there is the argument that these female athletes are not good enough (as if this is ever asked of male athletes). There is the contention that the field is too small (at the Olympic level there is a concern that every sport must have high level competitors from multiple countries). But the reason that always confounded me was that there was a rumor that ski jumping damaged women’s ovaries and could lead to infertility.
While no one could substantiate this claim and it never applied to male competitors’ reproductive abilities, the rumor floated in the background of the many conversations that I had with coaches, ski jumpers, and parents over the three years I was a part of the ski jumping world. It also resurfaced in a recent article about the reasons why women were not going to be allowed into the 2010 games: Canadian Walter Sieber, an IOC member who recommended not including the women’s ski jump in the 2010 games, maintains that the decision was not gender-based. Sieber recalled the decision by the IOC to add women’s boxing to the Olympics as proof of the organization’s “true colors.”
But statements made in 2005 by Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation, tell a different story. According to Bryant, Kasper said ski jumping “seems to not be appropriate for the ladies from a medical point of view.” (emphasis mine) Arguing that the women should be included is a moot point; it is something that should have happened long ago. Even the general Canadian population agrees: in a recent poll in Canada 73% of those queried said that women should be allowed to jump in the 2010 games. Canada boosts a strong field of female ski jumpers and so their exclusion makes no logistical or logical sense; the possibility of Canada earning medals in women’s ski jumping is high.
Therefore, the true reason why women will not be allowed to jump remains a partial mystery. Interestingly, the argument that ski jumping leads to infertility in women has a long history in the oppositional rhetoric regarding female entrance into the masculine realm of athletics. Susan Cahn writes extensively about this tension in her book Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in 20th Century Sport. She states:
“Athletics has long been the province of men… For many men sport has provided an arena in which to cultivate masculinity and achieve manhood” (3). Many of the opposers to the feminine entrance into sports “…worried that women could ‘feminize’ sport, diluting its masculine content and wording the boundary between male and female spheres of activity” (4).
While women’s inclusion in the world of ski jumping is a contemporary example of the fears of feminization at play in sport, historically the exact same argument (that participating in sport could lead to infertility and that it would damage their health) was used to keep women out of competing in marathons. The first women on record to complete the marathon was Roberta “Bobbi” Gibbs. She stated that she, initially, did not even realize that women were not allowed to run in marathon races. She just loved to run and so in 1966 she wrote to the Boston Athletic Association that she wanted to compete the Boston Marathon. As Gibbs records in her book, A Run of One’s Own,
“Will Cloney, the race director, wrote back a letter that said that women were not physiologically capable of running 26 miles and furthermore, under the rules that governed international sports, they were not allowed to run.”
“I was stunned. ‘All the more reason to run,’ I thought.”
“At that moment, I knew that I was running for much more than my own personal challenge. I was running to change the way people think. There existed a false belief that was keeping half the world’s population from experiencing all of life. And I believed that if everyone, man and woman, could find the peace and wholeness I found in running, the world would be a better, happier, healthier place.”
Bobbi Gibbs ran the race with hood over her head and without an official start number. She finished in the top third of the marathon in 1966 and completely shattered all beliefs about women being physically capable of running in the marathon. However, the following year another women, Katherine Switzer, entered the race as a man and was discovered on the track by an official who, literally, tried to push her off the road due to her gendered transgression.
Despite the amazing accomplishments of female marathon pioneers who proved that women could run a marathon and do well, even in a field of men, the International Olympic Committee did not allow women to run the marathon in the Olympics until 1984, almost twenty years after the first women publically competed in the marathon.
The argument that running the marathon or ski jumping could damage women’s ovaries and lead to infertility is also deeply rooted in the historical oppression of women. The need to protect women’s health from harm was one of the reasons that women where initially barred from higher education in the 1800s. An article called “Early College Women: Determined to be Educated” cited one influential medical professional in particular: Some of the harshest were medical personal who felt that
“…a girl could study and learn, but she could not do all this and retain uninjured health, and a future secure from neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system,” according to Dr. Edward Clark in his widely respected Sex and Education published in 1873. (emphasis mine)
In 1986 Micheal L. Berger delivered an essay entitled “Women Drivers! The Origins of a 20th Century Stereotype
“that detailed how a women’s delicate physique was one of the reasons that women were not allowed or encouraged to drive when automotives first became popular. However, the denotative reason to keep women from behind the wheel was actually more about “keep[ing] women in their place and to protect them against corrupting influences in society, and within themselves” (257).
Interestingly, the contemporary discussion of whether or not any activity could lead to female infertility indicates that there is still a prevailing belief that the ultimate goal for all women is to reproduce; that our lives outside of motherhood are not nearly as important. This type of rhetoric almost never burdens men (the only example that I know of is discussion of high performance male bicyclists and the potential damage that sitting for extended amounts of time could do to male reproduction). This is despite the fact that several performance enhancement drugs that are widely used by professional and amateur male athletes are known to lead to lower sperm counts and, even, erectile dysfunction. Undoubtedly, someone is trying to keep female ski jumpers in “their place” by barring them, once again, from competing in the Winter Olympics.
When I set out to make Jump like a Girl in 2002 I picked the story of women ski jumpers because their trials were akin to my own struggles as a female athlete growing up. As someone who enjoyed more “masculine” sports (soccer, track and field, basketball) there was always a feeling of transgression whenever I played that I could never really pinpoint the source of. I never realized that underneath Lindsey Van’s and Jessica Jerome’s public struggle to ski jump in the Olympics there were also broader issues of female sexuality that have plagued women for centuries. The plight of female ski jumpers still indicates that we have a long way to go for gender and sexual equity and freedom. What I hope to see in the future is akin to what Bobbi Gibbs wrote:
“I have always had a vision of a world where men and women can share all of life together in mutual respect, love and admiration; a world where we find health through exercise and through the appreciation of the spirit and beauty of the world and of each other; a world based on love and individual integrity, where we all have a chance to do what we most passionately love, to help others, and to become all we can become.”
Let’s continue to make that vision a reality. Let the women jump.
Ruth Gregory is an Associate Professor of Digital Filmmaking at Shoreline Community College as well as a student in the Masters of Arts in Cultural Studies program at the University of Washington Bothell. She is new to the blogging sphere, but her other experiments with writing for the ‘net can be read here: http://ruthconsumessomemedia.blogspot.com/
Female Ski Jumping References and Resources:
- Amandolare, Sarah. “Women’s Ski Jumpers Continue Pursuing Olympic Bid” 3 December 2009. FindingDelucina.com.
- Hu, Steven. “73 percent of Canadians want women’s ski jumping in 2010 Olympics, poll finds” 18 December 2009. Straight.com.
- Leo, Roger. “Canadian Supreme Court Won’t Hear The Women Ski Jumpers” 28 December 2009. Onthesnow.com
Other Cited Resources:
- Berger, Michael L., “Women Drivers!: The Origins of a 20th Century Stereotype,” Paper delivered at the Detroit historical Society’s Conference on the Automobile and American Culture, October 1, 1982.
- Cahn, Susan K. Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Women’s Sport. New York: The Free Press, 1994.
- Gibbs, Roberta “Bobbi”. “A Run of One’s Own” reprinted from womenssportsfoundation.org on runningpast.com.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Performance-enhancing Drugs: Are they a Risk to Your Health?” Mayoclinic.com.
- New York Branch of the American Association of Women. “Early College Women: Determined to be Educated” Northnet.org.
Other Resources Regarding Women in Sport:
- Lenskyj, Helen. Out of Bounds: Women, Sport, and Sexuality. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1986.
- Smith‑Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
- Burstyn, Varda. The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Olympic Skiers Told Jumping Could Cause Infertility | Strollerderby — February 1, 2010
[...] debate, Ruth Gregory, professor of women’s reproductive rights and athletics, says that the infertility argument was also once used to keep women from running marathons. After Bobbi Gibbs, the first woman to run a public marathon, crossed the finish line, it took [...]
Ike — March 3, 2010
Ski jumping could cause death, which isn't appropriate for gentlemen from a medical point of view. So obviously the solution isn't to allow women to ski jump, it's to ban any sort of activity that could possibly harm anyone participating in it. Right?
Ruth — March 17, 2010
Thanks for responding. I personally believe that equal rights is about letting people choose what they want to do to their body - whether it is to experience the rush of flying off a ski jump, wearing "girls" clothes to school if you are a boy, or allowing a woman to giving vaginal birth for her second delivery after delivering her first child by c-section. Freedom is all about having control over your body and what you do with it, not being forced to preserve it because others feel it is your duty to reproduce or that there could be harm in the activity you choose to engage in.
Neneh — April 28, 2010
The argument of ski jumping damaging a woman's fertility makes absolutely no sense to me. Disregarding whether the comment is true or not, I don't see how it has any bearing on a woman's participation. What if she was proven infertile by another cause? Would she be allowed to compete then?
To me, it smacks of the belief that a woman's goal in life is to reproduce, and her means to do so should be protected from damaging activities - otherwise, what use is she?
(though obviously she's no use at being a ski jumper either, being frail and ladylike)
Ricky Husainni — July 24, 2015
Let's hear to some skier to prove if skiing is affecting the woman's fertility.