Jacki Zehner On Women, Money, and Changing the World  » Sochi 2014 – Women Ski Jumpers Are Ready To Fly

February 07, 2014

Sochi 2014 – Women Ski Jumpers Are Ready To Fly

(Photo: Lindsey Van) Post originally published on LinkedIn Influencers on February 7, 2014

Today is the day of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, and while I’m looking forward to watching the games and cheering on the athletes of Team Canada (where I am from) and Team USA (where I live) , there’s one sport in particular that I’m looking forward to the most. Women’s ski jumping is making its Olympic debut in Sochi, and I couldn’t be happier for Jessica Jerome, Lindsey Van, and Sarah Hendrickson, the three athletes from my home town of Park City who will be representing the United States. Their collective journey to this moment is an extraordinary one, and one I am proud to be a part of in a very small way. It is a story of passion, perseverance, and the willingness to fight for what you believe in.

In 1991, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared that any sports that wanted to be added to the Olympic program had to include competitions for both men and women. While this initiative is to be applauded, it was not without its limitations, because it was not enforced retroactively, meaning that women’s sports still have to apply and lobby for inclusion in the Olympics. They had to make their case according to IOC criteria. It took effort, money, and time to include many of the sports that we now have the pleasure of watching and celebrating, such as Women’s Ice Hockey (added in 1998), Women’s Weightlifting (added in 2000), Women’s Bobsleigh (added in 2002), and Women’s Boxing (added in 2012). All of these inclusions have paved the way for a more gender equal Olympic Games, and the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games were notable for the fact that they marked the first time that Team USA sent more female athletes to the Games than male athletes (269 vs. 261). For a full history of women’s participation at the Olympic Games click here.

The journey for Women’s Ski Jumping to be included in Sochi was a long one, and the story was fully documented in a film called READY TO FLY, which chronicles the story of Lindsey Van, her teammates, and their struggle to get women’s ski jumping into the Olympic Games. This is where my small role comes in. I heard about the documentary and came on board as an Executive Producer (meaning I donated to the film), because the story touched me so deeply. The narrative is focussed on Lindsey and her dream of becoming a champion ski jumper and an Olympian. This was her dream from a very young age, but little did she know when she started jumping at the age of 9 that there would be a battle outside of the competition that needed to be fought just for her to get into the Olympics. Furthermore, as the first ever Women’s Ski Jumping World Champion, Lindsey never imagined that she would become the poster child of this fight.

(Photo: Sarah Hendrickson and my daughter Allie)

What do you sacrifice to become an world class athlete? What are the rewards? Well, when you are in a somewhat obscure sport that is not well funded and lacks more general public attention, winning an Olympic medal is as good as it gets. It is the top of the hill, and in order to attract the sponsors and support needed to compete at that level, you need to compete at the Olympic Games. To deny athletes that opportunity because of their sex is simply wrong. Male ski jumpers have been included in the Olympics since the very first Winter Games in 1924, but it would take 90 years for women to join them. By the time of the first ever Women’s Ski Jumping World Championships in 2009, there was no doubt that women ski jumpers were competing, in a critical mass, at a comparable level to men, and yet for these women athletes, there was a huge push back. The film documents the challenges they faced, including such ingrained and ridiculous gender bias illustrated by a comment by the former President of the International Ski Federation (FIS), Gian-Franco Kasper, who publicly stated that ski jumping was damaging to women’s reproductive organs. This is a story, a film, about never giving up on your dreams and what it takes to make them a reality.

So when you are watching the women jump for the first time in the Olympic Games, I hope you take a moment to acknowledge that these women are making history. When Lindsey Van is charging down that hill and fulfilling her lifelong dream of being an Olympian, please send her your best wishes, because she is one of the incredible women, perhaps the woman, who had the biggest influence in making it happen. You can watch Women’s Ski Jumping on February 11th at 10:25 pm Sochi time.

Click here to buy your copy of the film and to support the Women’s Ski Jumping team. It is also available on iTunes.

Further note: There remains a gender imbalance in the Winter Olympics as the Nordic Combined event remains a male only competition, despite the fact that women now compete in both cross country skiing and ski jumping separately. Women’s ski jumping also only gets one medal event (normal hill), while the men get three (normal hill, large hill, and team), but the inclusion of women’s ski jumping remains a major milestone.

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