Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Olympic sexism on the slopes

Women's ski-jumping is banned from the Winter Olympics. The BBC today reports on an attempt by a "group of international female ski jumpers" to force the organisers of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics to include their sport.

According to the BBC, "The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says women's ski jumping is not developed enough to merit inclusion." What does "not developed enough" actually mean?

The Vancouver Sun reported on 24 February that, when challenged on the issue by Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem, IOC president Jacques Rogge argued that, "There are just too few women involved in the sport. It would diminish the value of an Olympic medal to include it in the games." The report noted, however, that "there are more women competing in ski jumping internationally than there are in two other women's winter sports allowed by the Olympics: snowboarding and bobsledding."

In 2005 Austria's Daniela Iraschko jumped 200m on a slope where the record distance jumped by a man was 215m. That ratio is comparable with other Olympic sports, so women's ski-jumping can hardly be called under-developed on that basis. Indeed, US ski-jumper Alissa Johnson made the cut for the men's division in the 2003 national championships.

So the question persists of what is at the root of the IOC's objections. This issue is raised in another Vancouver Sun report, one which notes that "even today there are people who argue that women shouldn't ski jump because it's dangerous to their reproductive health. It's the same argument that's kept women and girls off playing fields and out of locker rooms for millennia."

A report on the modern Olympics prepared for the Australian Parliament (PDF here) makes a similar observation:
In fighting to gain entry to athletics in the Olympics women had to contend with cultural perceptions about the limitations of the female body and what was appropriate conduct for their gender. Implicit in these arguments was the idea that elite sport could only reflect masculinity; there was no room for female athletic prowess.

Notwithstanding that this and other ideas that sport makes women less attractive and that physical exertion may affect childbearing have been discredited, some residual of the argument that women were too fragile to become athletes, continues to surface occasionally.
Is it reasonable to ascribe these views to Rogge and the IOC? Rogge insists (in this video, for example) that the exclusion of women's ski-jumping is a technical matter and not a gender issue. Does the problem lie with the FIS? Matt Slater remarks on the BBC that "the instinctively conservative and predominately male International Ski Federation (FIS)" had doubts about women's ski jumping, and ABC News reported in 2006 that,
The International Ski Federation has ruled that ski jumping is too dangerous for women, making it the only winter Olympic sport that has male competitors and no female counterparts.

"It's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view," the federation's president Gian Franco Kasper said on National Public Radio.
Nonetheless, the FIS did vote in 2006 and by 114 to 1 "in favour of introducing women's ski jumping as an Olympic sport. That was the preliminary step required to get the IOC to consider it. Later that same year, Rogge and the rest turned the idea down flat" (Vancouver Sun). Women's ski-jumping is part of the FIS-organized World Championhip event. The BBC notes that that one dissenting vote in 2006 came from a Swiss delegate - Switzerland being home to the FIS, to the IOC, and to Gian Franco Kasper.

So the problem rests with the IOC, not the FIS, at least if one discounts Kasper and his "medical point of view". Yet Rogge's technical arguments don't appear to hold up to much scrutiny. So what's left?

Of note is Rogge's reported attempt at a rebuttal (an example of what-iffery, and not one that impressed Penny Ballem): "There are, he said, many female boxers in the world, but it is not an Olympic sport for women." Could it be that Rogge's objection is not to the level of development of a sport, but to the nature of the sport itself? Does he, or does the IOC, consider ski jumping "unladylike"?

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