Living a parallel existence nearly three decades apart, women ski jumpers have something in common with women distance runners. Obviously the commonalities are not the physical aspects of their events. They could not be more different. What do they have in common? Both sets of athletes know what it’s like to be discriminated against by their international governing bodies. Both know what it’s like to watch an Olympics (or two or three….) go by without an opportunity to compete no matter if you’re the best in the world. Both wondered if they would have an Olympic opportunity in their relatively short athletic lifetimes. It’s not a level playing field. It reminds me what 5,000-meter Track & Field Olympian, Dick Burkle once said to me. “I do not know what it must feel like to have to fight for every event. I was born with the God-given right to run anything I want.”
Wednesday, April 6th, 2011, the women ski jumpers finally received their long overdue and just award of Olympic status for the 2014 Games in Sochi. It had been nearly seven years of battling, including a lawsuit last year against the International Olympic Committee. The IOC dragged their feet as long as possible, denying the women the opportunity of competing last year in Vancouver, Canada where the women should have competed.
Over five years ago, the vice president of the Women’s Ski Jumping Foundation, Peter Jerome, walked into the LA84 Foundation, seeking some advice and hopefully support for his daughter and her teammates to move their event forward onto the Olympic scene. He met with the President of LA84, Anita De Frantz, due to her position within the Olympic Committee, after which she introduced him to me as the person who had navigated this path before. I shared with him the story of how the women’s distance events came to be in the Olympic Games, and about our battle for the marathon, 5,000 and 10,000-meter races. I told him about the international class action lawsuit against the IOC and related entities. To read more about the role Peter Jerome played in the creation of the WSJ Foundation, see this Deseret News article.
Then, a year later, I was a guest in Park City, Utah to witness an international competition of women ski jumpers — and surprisingly to me, without snow. This suited me perfectly. I favor fine weather competition like the Southern California climate I come from. I tried to describe to my incredulous running friends that they can ski jump in warm weather on a hill covered with what looks like hundreds of hula skirts laid out in overlapping patterns, like shingles on a roof. I climbed the hill to the top of the jumps, to be sure I experienced every vantage point – from the bottom, side and top. I sat on the pole the jumpers launch themselves from and I can tell you that it seemed to me like launching yourself out of an airplane. I watched from the sides, where the judges stand and could see them literally in flight. I watched near that point where the coaches stand as they fly overhead. I watched from the bottom to see their incredible landings, where one fall could end a career. This sport requires helmets and padded gear for good reasons. My admiration for the jumpers grew. They are courageous and brave athletes, and they deserve the world stage.
In Park City, Peter introduced me to Deedee Corradini, former mayor of Salt Lake City who was instrumental in gaining the Winter Olympics for Utah in 2002. As President of the Women’s Ski Jumping Foundation, she spearheaded the women’s movement to gain inclusion in the Olympics. I gave interviews to the press on the jumpers’ behalf. For one, I was interviewed by Elaine Jarvik of the Deseret News.
Lindsey Van, 2010 World Ski Jumping Champion, has been working towards the Olympics since she was twelve, as described in this ESPN video story by Bonnie Ford, “Women’s Ski Jump OK’d, but Battle Not Over.” She has been the point person amongst the athletes in the court case against the IOC. All the while, leading the way by her example. Last month, as defending champion, Lindsey did not make it to the finals in the World Championships (see previous posting). The weather was horrific, but all the women participated in solidarity, and their efforts sealed the fact that they are prepared to compete at the highest levels, whatever it takes. Deedee describes the importance of that event in this recent NPR interview: “Only a Game.” She paints the most comprehensive overview of the struggle, the victory, it’s meaning, and what lies ahead.
As I reflect on distance runners and ski jumpers, a lot of parallels come to mind. Throughout the ski jumping efforts, I felt at once elated to be involved and assist, but deeply saddened by the fact that more than twenty-five years after the women runners’ case, discrimination continues.
From the time I set my first world record in a marathon, I realized the inequity. As a 1500-meter runner, I had a clear path of opportunity available to me that led from a national championships to an Olympic Trials and onto the Olympic Team. In reality, this only occurred as of 1972. It was shocking that this was the latest and longest event available to women runners. If you listen to the video mentioned earlier, you can see and hear twelve-year-old Lindsey Van looking for an Olympics in her immediate future. Back in 2005, at the LA84 Foundation, we honored a very young, outstanding ski jumper, Abby Hughes, at our National Women and Girls in Sports Day awards luncheon. She was very shy and modest, but with the few words she spoke, she spoke volumes when she stated that she “wished she would be allowed to ski jump in the Olympics.” My heart went out to her on the spot. Those words echoed my own back in 1974 after my first marathon world record, and again in 1975 after my second record. At the time, I thought the situation could be remedied with lobbying, a letter-writing campaign or a petition-signing drive. I was naive beyond imagination. It was not to be, and the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games passed me by. In 1979, my husband and I were founding members of an organization, sponsored by NIKE, created for lobbying purposes to seek the inclusion of the marathon, 5,000 and 10,000-meter events into the Olympic Games. The organization was named the International Runners Committee (IRC), and charter members beside myself and my husband Tom Sturak, included Joe Henderson, Eleanora Mendonca (Brazil), Joan Ullyot, Nina Kuscsik, Doris Brown Heritage, Jeff Darman, Leal-Ann Reinhart, Ken Young, Lynn Billington (England), Sarolta Monspart (Hungary), Henley Roughton Gibble, Manfred Steffny (West Germany), Arthur Lydiard (New Zealand), and Miki Gorman (Japan). When Joe Henderson stepped down from being newsletter editor, Janet Heinonen (Eugene, OR) joined as editor for the remainder of time the IRC was in existence. She continued to follow the sport, with her investigative reporting of issues within track and field in her “Keeping Track” newsletter.
The roadblocks described above are similar to the ones placed before the ski jumpers. Not enough participation. Not widely competed around the world. Not enough room for expansion. Not mentioned here, but still a roadblock, the argument was raised in both cases that competing was somehow putting a woman’s health in jeopardy. I won’t expand on that here; it’s so difficult to believe that the issue was ever taken seriously. Both jumpers and runners faced a lot of discrimination. And even if athletes were to satisfy all the rules in the book, the IOC held the final veto if they wanted to use it. I was most angered that the integrity of their process was always placed a higher priority than the life of an athlete. An athlete’s competitive lifetime is relatively short. Asking an athlete to wait an Olympiad (four years) could mean the end of a career. In Lindsey’s case, she has waited multiple Olympiads. Meanwhile, other events have been moved onto the Olympic program ahead of hers, some of which did not have the long history as did ski jumping, nor satisfied the rules. I said already, it is not a level playing field.
Both groups, the women distance runners and the women ski jumpers, discovered their own unique circumstances which led to the decision to bring an international class action lawsuit against the International Olympic Committee. In fact, the runners’ case set the precedent for the jumpers’ case, and court documents were shared across borders. I will explore the specific details of our cases in a subsequent writing. Both groups initially faced defeat in court. However, as I told the ski jumpers last year, you may have lost a battle, but you will win the war. It was true for the runners and thankfully it came true for the ski jumpers.
(To be continued)