Deborah Folka: Who knew women couldn't ski jump in the Winter Olympics?

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      By Deborah Folka

      Who knew women were not allowed to ski jump in the Olympics? Certainly not me when two years ago I was asked to coordinate the communications around a lawsuit launched in Vancouver to demand this gender imbalance be rectified.

      We didn’t win the lawsuit, though the lower court judge was clear in her finding of discrimination against women ski jumpers. But after the two years and three levels of court, it is apparent this was not a wrong that could be righted through the application of law, an appeal to common sense, or under the glare of publicity. There has to be a strong political will to protect equality—something I, perhaps naively, believed was a primary Canadian value.

      The 15 elite women ski jumpers who were my clients—some as young as 15—are all disciplined, courageous athletes. Alongside their male teammates, they train rigorously; they compete with focus; they develop skills, technique, and knowledge about their sport; and they sacrifice school time, normal social lives, and any other hobbies on the altar of elite athletics with the hope of one day going to the Olympics. It’s not a given, of course. But it’s the dream.

      The Olympic goal seemed within their grasp in 2006 when the International Ski Federation recommended 114-1 to the International Olympic Committee that women’s ski jumping be added as a new event. The men have been jumping since 1924—it’s one of the original winter sports in the modern-day Olympics. Whole new sports, like snowboard cross and skier cross, were recently added to the Olympic roster with fewer athletes and fewer countries than women’s ski jumping. It was time.

      But the IOC said no. And Canada said nothing.

      Our leadership has been strikingly mute on this topic. Only a handful of MPs and MLAs have publicly supported the women ski jumpers, and all who have are members of opposition parties. When politicians of any stripe and at any level were asked by reporters about the issue, every one of them said they supported the inclusion of the women but... That “but” would invariably be followed by the feeble—indeed embarrassing—excuse that “it’s up to the IOC and we can’t do anything”.

      I can only speak for myself (well, okay, and 73 percent of the Canadian population found by a national survey to be in support of the women ski jumpers), but I want the leaders of my country to stand up to foreign entities who use my tax dollars to put on a big event and then won’t let women set foot on something built for that event. In a marvellous irony, the current record holder for the Whistler normal hill is Lindsey Van, the 2009 women’s ski jump world champion. A bunch of male ski jumpers from all over the world, many with abilities far inferior to Van’s, will compete on those jumps next month, but not her.

      The lawsuit launched by the women ski jumpers did not cost taxpayers a dime. Davis LLP did the legal work pro bono, and I provided the communications counsel for free. In the latter stages, as the issue caught fire and more and more support flooded in, Torys LLP and Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP also donated their time and expertise to the fray. We had relentless and unfaltering leadership from Deedee Corradini, former mayor of Salt Lake City, long-time Olympic insider, and now president of Women’s Ski Jumping USA, a small not-for-profit foundation. We also enjoyed virtually uncritical endorsement in the popular media’s coverage of the story. Pretty much anybody who bothered to glance at the facts shrugged and said it was a no-brainer: the women should be in the Olympics and it was nothing but a tempest in a teapot. I agree.

      So why didn’t common sense prevail? Why will Vancouver 2010 not be celebrated as the first gender-equal Olympics? Why is the shameful whiff of discrimination going to linger instead?

      It all comes down to leadership. The Vancouver Olympic organizing committee’s leadership could have stood up to the IOC long ago, preventing the waste of all the time, money, and effort they spent fighting us. Vanoc CEO John Furlong could have told IOC president Jacques Rogge: “That’s not the way it’s done in Canada, Jacques. In Canada, people enjoy the same privileges regardless of race, sex, orientation, or beliefs. It’s our house, we put on the party, and we get to set the rules. No smoking, please wipe your feet when you come in and, oh yes, both girls and boys are welcome.”

      Deborah Folka is a communications consultant in Vancouver.




      Jan 16, 2010 at 9:48am

      Hello all you Olympic supporters, there is no hidden message here. It is a clear case of discrimination. Personally, this infuriates me, and I have been against Olympic spending since the start. At least if the women's ski jump had been allowed to compete, it would have been at least a little bit worth it.


      Jan 16, 2010 at 10:13am

      I actually kindof agree that until a sport reaches a critical mass, it should not be an olympic sport. Otherwise you have a situation where anyone in the sport who is 'pretty good' gets to go to the olympics. Maybe that is an exaggeration of this situation, but I think in a general sense thats what we're looking at with Women's Ski Jump.


      Jan 16, 2010 at 10:37am

      Great article. It disgusts me that these amazingly talented girls and women cannot compete in this event and make us proud with their great shows of athleticism, discipline, hard work, and tenacity, soaring fabulously and at times almost horizontally through the air. It disgusts me equally that while the Olympics nixes female athletes, women are still welcome to come to Vancouver from all over Canada to get horizontal work as prostitutes during the Games. What message is that sending? Crap. I'm going to a movie now. Escapism is all that helps me with such blatant sexism as this.

      Maurice Cardinal

      Jan 16, 2010 at 10:52am

      I'm surprised by the lack of solidarity among Olympic athletes, especially male ski jumpers. Where are you guys?

      The IOC has Olympic athletes so intimidated they don't have the balls to stand up for what is right.

      This is gender discrimination pure and simple.

      s shaw #1

      Jan 16, 2010 at 11:30am

      Ms. Folka presents a good case, great that she and a major downtown law firm donated their time, etc. etc. What the young women who ski jump need to do now is work to get other young women involved in the sport and work at raising profile of the sport so that the IOC is forced to pay attention. Now that glare of publicity has died down I am skeptical that these women and their supporters have the focus and determination to do the long slog of behind-the-scenes grunt work ahead.


      Jan 16, 2010 at 11:51am

      Thanks for the timely reminder about the systemic sexism that still pervades the IOC and the generally spineless nature of our ruling federal MINORITY government and VANOC. Instead of a great opportunity to showcase social progress and equality, we now have another example of the how the Old Boys set the rules.
      Shame on the IOC and to VANOC for agreeing to terms where IOC rules trump a sovereign countries charter of rights and freedoms. I hope that there are peaceful protests at the Ski jumping site to remind viewers (for of course that is what the Olympics is substantially about) of the missing female athletes.

      Moe Szysslak

      Jan 16, 2010 at 1:50pm

      Hmm. Would the Females be allowed to compete againts the Males? Is that allowed? I remember in 88 in calgary Eddie the Eagle got to jump, great guy, but he sucked in ski jumping. Is this a no to Female Ski Jumping competition, or is it no to Females competing in a Ski Jumping Competition. I thought we lived in an age and place where we didnt take this kinda crap. Oh yeah when I went to Fit Ladys Gym I was rejected....


      Jan 16, 2010 at 1:56pm

      I've heard that the snowboard freestyle event will be replaced with downhill waterskiing.


      Jan 16, 2010 at 2:00pm

      Moe, Right after Eddie the Eagle the IOC banned amateurs from amateur sports.


      Jan 16, 2010 at 3:59pm

      Here we go again.

      A bunch of entitled children playing the sex card.

      This was never about women or the feminist leeches trying to get their way, it was about rules.

      Don't like them? Promote the sport and get the numbers you need.

      Quit guilt-tripping Dad.