The body is squeezed into a fetal position over two elongated toothpicks that hurtle down icy rails until the track simply ends. Up and out, the plunger opts for the “V” for Victory sign, tipping their sticks up and out as one hand act the rudder, flapping as the toothpicks fall down, down, down. So far down! Off in the distance, there are mountains, trees, even buildings, while the whiteness is below almost transparent except for pastel-colored lines, suddenly oh-so-close. A landing without parachute or bungee cord, just those two sticks, best held parallel as the flier alights, one in front of the other, arms upraised in a benediction–I am safe, I have come down to earth.
Men and women have jumped together in competitions, as with the vast majority of organized sports, since the mid-19th century. Women have been allowed to jump internationally for less than a decade. The new dominant country, which has some of the best facilities in the world, will surprise you. In the mixed competition this year, there was controversy over disqualifications due to equipment and elation for those bumped up on to the podium. There is concern for athletes’ mental health due to body-shaming and the pressure of competition. Olympics, same as it ever was.
Welcome to ski jumping.
The Floating Baroness
Ski jumping started in 1868 or 1808 or 18-something else, depending on whether you want to count competition or just whenever the first dude who said, Watch this! The first recorded European jumping bean was Norwegian Ole Rye who jumped 9.5 meters in 1808. Skiing itself was invented something like 8000 BCE, which means it was probably invented everywhere that had snow and mountains, which means people were likely jumping off hills a lot earlier than 1808. Nevertheless.
If the first formal competition was only in 1868, then it’s worth noting that the first woman noted to jump was Ingrid Olavsdottir Vestby in 1862. According to blogger Bryan Rempel, she jumped in a skirt:
Vestby… left the ground for around six meters, or almost 20 feet—“past the point where many a brave lad had lost his balance earlier in the competition.” Spectators shouted bravos because “they had never seen a girl jump on skis and they had been more than a little anxious as she flew over their heads.”
It was into this fledgling practice that Paula Reichsgräfin von Lamberg, who was born in Lebenberg Castle in Austria, jumped into the mix. Literally. One historian points out that she won the Ladies’ Championship in 1908, an exact century after the first gentleman jumper. Yet, while jumping for women wasn’t uncommon, many journalists–mostly men–took the opportunity to interject commentary about how unseemly it was. For example, when Illustrierte Zeitung was describing the “floating baroness” in 1910, they urged women not to take up jumping:
One prefers to see women with nicely mellifluous movements, which show elegance and grace, like in ice skating or lawn tennis…and it is not enjoyable or aesthetic to see how a representative of the fair sex falls when jumping from a hill, flips over and with mussed-up hair glides down towards the valley in a snow cloud.llustrierte Zeitung 1910 article describing women ski jumpers
Hence, while men’s ski jumping has been included in every Winter Olympics since the first in 1924 (and in the Nordic Games since 1901), women were not allowed to ski jump until 2014.
The Old “Falling Uterus” Argument of 2012
Many women were criticized at the outset for running, throwing, shooting hoops, or even walking, with swimming, skating, and tennis being the few acceptable sports. When complaining that women didn’t look feminine didn’t deter women enough, the influencers of the mid-19th century then turned to doctors. A strongly-held theory was that sports would cause uterine prolapse. Prolpase is a real medical condition where the uterus drops out of place, but it’s often caused by underdeveloped pelvic muscles and ligaments–not from sports. Still, the falling uterus was the big scare tactic thrown at runners and jumpers, which is why women were originally compelled to play basketball on a half court without taking jump shots. It was the particular argument used to disallow women for ski jumping.
As late as 2005, the president of the International Ski Federation, Gian Franco Kasper, was still saying that ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” In comparison, women’s aerials and moguls events, where skiers routinely do somersaults and ski tricks, were admitted along with men’s events to the Olympics in the 1990s. Thus, Canada’s Jennifer Heil could win a gold medal doing this:
But was still being told that women were far too delicate to do this:
Even decades earlier in the 1930s, women were routinely allowed to ski in the downhill and slalom races, but ski jumping considered off limits because it was too dangerous. It is especially ironic that the Floating Baroness von Lamberg ended up marrying a race car driver and was killed, only age 40, in a race involving sidecars, high speed, and no seat belts.
Meanwhile, ski jumpers like Lindsey Van had to repeatedly complain and sue the IOC and ISF, unsuccessfully pressing to get their sport into Vancouver. They finally prevailed for the Sochi Games of 2014. The first gold medalist was German’s Carina Vogt who flew into history with a beautiful form and landed 103m on the normal hill.
Next Come the Eating Disorders
In Pyeongchang, Norway’s Maren Lundby took the gold and then proceeded to win the next few World Cup titles. Seeming like a natural front runner in Beijing, however, Lundy opted not to train and enter the 2022 Games. The reason she was reticent to join? She had gained a bit of weight and didn’t want to go through the harsh methods needed to take it off.
It turns out that “fat don’t float” is now a common quip among the ski jumping crowd. Women, who are naturally lighter than men, can jump father. The longest jump on the normal hill in 2022 was 104.5m for a man, 108m for a woman. Naturally, once ski jumping became an accepted sport for women, it was an easy next step to body-shaming. As Maren Lundby explains it, “it can happen to people who push to lose weight for a long time. Every time, it gets harder and harder to lose weight. That’s how our bodies get more efficient and try to fight against it. That’s proven.”
Woman are light. Woman are also starting young; many of the jumpers in the finals seemed to be in their teens. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself–most sporting talents start as young phenoms. But it would be good not to add a sport to women’s repertoire only to create another candidate for abuse. The sport for several years has had issues with both genders trying to lose too much weight, so much so that rules were instituted to require minimum BMI. To be clear, the sport does not require lighter athletes, but it’s easy to imagine that dialogue between coach and athlete.
Lundby, for her part, received a tremendous amount of public praise and support for her choice to opt out rather than risk her mental health. And there is such a thing as the expertise of age, which might add an opportunity for style points to overcome a few meters in length that come from a few less pounds. Men are still being awarded enough extra style points that could close the gap.
Medal Today, Disqualification Tomorrow
The biggest controversy in Beijing for the women may not be about weight or whether it’s “medically safe” but rather over their suits. In the mixed team event that took place yesterday multiple teams were disqualified over the suits. Four separate teams–including heavily-favored Germany, Austria, Japan, and Norway–were disqualified following their first round jumps.
Many of the athletes, including Katarina Althaus of Germany, had worn the suit the day before during the Women’s Normal Hill event. Althaus had scored a silver in the suit. On the next day, the same suit disqualified the German athlete, who was mystified. Norwegian jumper Silje Opseth complained that the measurement procedure used for the mixed event was completely different. “We were told to stand in a different way than we have ever done before.” Using a different measurement technique put several of the top teams out of the running. The German coach, whose team had a serious chance at a medal, called it “puppet theater.”
The teams that were bumped up into the top spot didn’t find it controversial or “bittersweet,” however. They were happy to jump on to the podium, including the quartet from that newest world power in ski jumping: Slovenia.
Why Not Try a Holiday in Planica this Year?
According to the tourist website, thinkslovenia.com, Slovenia boasts the world’s highest ski jumping center and the world’s second highest ski jump. Among the country’s favorite sports, ski jumping is one of the most popular, next to football (the world version), skiing, and handball. Thus, ski jumping is to Slovenia what water polo is to Serbia and badminton to Indonesia. The team expected to medal at the Games.
Slovenia is on the back, or eastern side, of the Alps, almost directly south of Salzburg in Austria (Mozart country) and directly west of Geneva. It’s only a three hour drive northeast of Venice but nestled in rocky crags. Hence, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that four Slovenian women made it into the final round for the normal hill. All four were in the top ten. Two were on the podium, Urša Bogataj and Nika Križnar, flanking Germany’s Althaus for the silver.
Bogataj took a second gold medal in the team event. Two golds and a silver: not bad for an event only staged four times so far.
The Slovenians and others are making much of this huge leap toward gender parity. A doubling of jumping events for women! Others are pointing out that the math of equality is a little twisty. Men jump on the normal hill and the large hill, as singles and as teams. They can also combine jumping with cross-country skiing, the Nordic Combined, an event as old as the Winter Games themselves. They had four events; women had one. Now, with the mixed team, they have FIVE events, and the women have TWO.
However you define parity, 5:2 is not it.
The 170 Nordic Combined worldwide women competitors will keep petitioning for a spot. The women disqualified for wearing a suit perfectly fine the day before will keep petitioning for consistent treatment. The women criticized for gaining a few pounds and losing a few meters will keep highlighting the risks of eating disorders. Women have found the way to do what they need to do again and again. Whether recognized officially or not, they can make their way to the hills of Planica and wait their turn to fly.