The best female ski jumper in the world watches the Winter Olympics from her couch in Park City, Utah, with her dog, Yuki, a yellow Lab she named after the Japanese word for snow. She yells encouragement at the television when her friends are competing, as though she could somehow shout them onto the medal stand in Vancouver from her living room, 1,000 miles away. There are times, Lindsey Van knows, when even though you're powerless to affect the result, you just have to make some noise.
This is an article from the March 1, 2010 issue
That's Lindsey Van, not Lindsey Vonn, the Alpine skiing gold medalist in downhill who became an Olympic star as quickly as she flashed down a Whistler mountainside during the Games' first week. Van and Vonn are separated by just a couple of letters, but they are light years apart in what they symbolize about the status of women in the Olympic movement. While Vonn stands to make a killing in endorsements, Van, who won the gold medal at the women's world championships in 2009, holds on to her job as a physical-therapy assistant, blocked from the chance for gold by the International Olympic Committee's senseless refusal to allow women to compete in ski jumping. And so she sits at home, refusing to attend the Games as a spectator. "I don't want to go to a party I'm not invited to," Van says.
Van, 25, has joined the fight for the right to be Olympians that ski jumpers began in 1998, last summer taking the battle as far as the Canadian courts, which declined to force the IOC to include them. The IOC's rationale for exclusion: There aren't enough elite female competitors from enough countries to make the sport worthy. Yet there were 39 women from 13 countries at last year's world championships—more than those at the world championships for women's skeleton (26 from 13), which was added for the 2002 Games. Van is convinced that sexism is at work, noting that because women and men jump similar distances, the men's feats at the Olympics would be diminished in the eyes of spectators as well as some IOC members. In 2005 one of them, Gian Franco Kasper, said he didn't think women should compete because the sport "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."
It's easy to assume that Olympic stardom is an equal opportunity phenomenon. Vonn, snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis and skier Julia Mancuso have made as many headlines in these Games, in victory and defeat, as male stars like short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, figure skater Johnny Weir and snowboarder Shaun White. But do not take the attention some women have drawn to be a sign that there is gender equality in the system: Of the participants in Vancouver, 60% are male. Van doubts that the IOC will ever let women ski jumpers compete, even though IOC president Jacques Rogge said last week that their chances look good for 2014. "They said that in 2002 and 2006, and we're still waiting," she says. "They said we had to have our own world championships, we had to increase the number of athletes and show greater worldwide appeal. Done it, done it, done it. And still we wait."
Sexism isn't confined to any sport or country. It's a universal language, spoken not so much with words as with action, or the lack of it. Female hockey players from many of the European countries competing in the Olympics, for instance, have seen their national federations' lopsided spending on the men's programs as a loud and clear message that they are considered mere afterthoughts. In Russia, where hockey is the national pastime, the women couldn't begin practicing until three weeks before the Games because of budget constraints.
The results of that attitude have shown up on the scoreboard in Vancouver, where Canada and the U.S., with far more financial support, have skated circles around their opponents. The Canadians beat Slovakia 18--0 and Switzerland 10--1 on their way to the semifinals, and the Americans outscored opponents 31--1 in their first three games. "If our men's team lost games by such scores, our country wouldn't stand for it," said Slovakia forward Petra Pravlikova. "There would be more money given for training, whatever it takes. But I think the attitude toward us is, Well, it's just the women. What does it matter?"
At least the women hockey players have a place under the Olympic umbrella. The female ski jumpers can only stand outside, their hopes dampened by the knowledge that the IOC could continue to block them from future Games on a whim. "The IOC might say, 'Oh, yeah, I remember them. They're the ones that embarrassed us and caused us a lot of trouble in Vancouver,'" IOC member Dick Pound said last summer, referring to the lawsuit. "'Maybe they should wait another four years or eight years.'" But wait, wasn't this supposed to be about the lack of elite jumpers?
"That tells you all you need to know," Van says. "This is an organization that can do whatever it wants." She fights now to ensure that other women someday get the chance to become Olympic ski jumpers, saying, "It's not so much for me anymore. I doubt I'll ever get there." Yet Lindsey Van keeps training anyway, roaring down the mountain and gliding through the air, against forces that feel stronger than gravity.
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