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.