Lindsey Van Finally Can Fly as Women's Ski Jumping Makes Olympic Debut

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Lindsey Van Finally Can Fly as Women's Ski Jumping Makes Olympic Debut
Daniel Maurer/Associated Press

On Tuesday, American Lindsey Van will compete in the Olympic Games for the first time. A legend in her sport, the 29-year-old has never represented her country in the ski jump. 

No one has. That makes Tuesday kind of a big deal.

For 90 years, since the first Winter Olympics in 1924, women have been forbidden from participating in the ski jump, one of the Games' eight original sports. Since 1998, a few staunch advocates have waged active battle from the slopes to the courts to see the world's premiere winter sporting event fully integrated. They've met fierce resistance at every turn.

The reason? It's crazy, antiquated and, frankly, a little unbelievable. 

It's a tale that begins in England, at the dawn of the Victorian era in 1836. Donald Walker, not content with his British Manly Exercises, puts pen to pad and writes Exercises for Ladies. Walker believed, because of her "feeble arms" and "peculiar function of multiplying the species," a woman could only bear "moderate exercise." Strenuous activity was out of the question.

It was a line of reasoning that pervaded popular thinking until just a few decades ago. Women were banned from the Boston Marathon until 1972, and the Summer Olympics didn't introduce a women's Marathon until 1984 in Los Angeles for similar reasons. 

Of course, not all women were willing to be relegated to the sidelines.

The very first organized ski jumping event in history featured at least one participant in a skirt. Ingrid Olavsdottir Vestby jumped 20 meters that day in 1862, and brave women have been jumping ever since.

It helped if there was no one willing to tell you "no." That, perhaps, allowed Countess Paula Lamberg to soar past Vestby's mark in the 1900s.

But even royalty couldn't completely escape the condemnation of her Austrian countrymen as journalists in Illustrierte Zeitung magazine politely attacked her decision to compete in such a rigorous sport (via Byron Rempel of SkiingHistory.org):

It is understandable that ski jumping is performed very rarely by women, and taking a close look, not really a recommendable sport. 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.

The world has undoubtedly taken major strides in the decades since Lamberg created such a stir in Austria. Title IX revolutionized women's sports, and the Olympic Games became increasingly diverse. Two sports, however, refused to budge—ski jumping and the Nordic combined, likely because of its ski jumping component.

Thomas Lohnes/Associated Press
Kasper

Shockingly, the rationale behind the baby steps toward full inclusion had the painful ring of the past. Gian Franco Kasper, the head of the International Ski Federation, told NPR in a 2005 interview that women's reproductive organs might not stand up to the rigors of ski jumping, that "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."

Van was outraged, and rightfully so.

"It just makes me nauseous. Like, I kind of want to vomit," she told NBC. "Like, really? Like, I'm sorry, but my baby-making organs are on the inside. Men have an organ on the outside. So if it's not safe for me jumping down, then my uterus is going to fall out, what about the organ on the outside of the body?"

By 2009, Van had had enough. Stress, sleep loss and even ulcers were suddenly the gifts she was receiving from ski jumping; not the thrill of flight she had grown to love.   

Despite being the record holder, gender be damned, at Whistler, the jump built specifically for the 2010 Vancouver Games, Van and the other women who refused to give up on their dreams were refused an opportunity to compete.

A lawsuit followed.

And though the 14 women who stood up for justice didn't win in Canadian court, their decision to continue the fight likely led us to where we are today. 

In 2011, word came down from on high that the Sochi Olympics would make things right, at least in part. Women still aren't equal partners, participating in only one of the three events. But it's a start.

"I was kind of numb when I heard," Van told ESPN in 2011. "People expected me to be ecstatic, but I'd been after this for so long, it just didn't sink in at first."

Matthias Schrader/Associated Press/Associated Press
Sara Takanashi is the favorite.
Age and injuries, including nerve problems in her leg, have slowed Van as her career comes toward an inevitable end. She barely qualified for the Games, and her young teammate, 19-year-old Sarah Hendrickson, is expected to battle 17-year old Japanese sensation Sara Takanashi for the gold. 

For Van, the goal is simple. She wants to compete, to jump, to fly.

"I just want more people to see that women can ski jump," she told USA Today. "So check us out."

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