Women won't ski jump in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver next year. A justice at the British Columbia Supreme Court has ruled that failing to hold a ski jumping competition for women constitutes discrimination — but there's nothing Canadian courts can do about it.
Fifteen women sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics because the Vancouver games are men-only when it comes to ski jumping. The women argued that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms bars gender discrimination by government agencies and groups performing government functions.
Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon ruled that the committee is governed by the anti-discrimination language in the Canadian Charter, but that it is not responsible for the exclusion of women from the ski jumping competition and is powerless to change that decision.
"The IOC [International Olympic Committee] made a decision that discriminates against the plaintiffs," Fenlon wrote. "Only the IOC can alleviate that discrimination by including an Olympic ski jumping event for women in the 2010 Games."
Fenlon added that the Canadian charter does not apply to a non-Canadian entity such as the IOC.
"I'm shocked and disappointed," says Deedee Corradini of Women Ski Jumping USA. But "there is a moral victory here," she adds, given the court's clear finding that the IOC discriminates. "That's what we've been contending all along. So our hope is that the IOC will admit that this is discrimination and end it. The time has come."
IOC Stance Appears Firm
Based on a statement issued after the ruling, the IOC isn't inclined to change its position.
"While we are pleased that the Games can now proceed as planned," the statement reads, "we strongly disagree with the court's analysis that the IOC acted in a discriminatory manner."
It repeats the IOC's explanation for the decision not to include women's ski jumping in the 2010 Winter Games: "Our decision was based on technical issues, without regard to gender."
Those technical issues include the number of women ski jumping at an elite level and the number of countries competing in the sport. IOC officials have argued that too few women and countries compete to justify Olympic competition.
Fenlon addressed that directly in her ruling: "If the IOC had applied the criteria for admission of new events to both men's and women's ski jumping events," she wrote, "neither group would be competing in the 2010 Games."
Men's ski jumping has always been part of the Winter Olympics and remains by virtue of tradition. That "grandfathering" of the men's event, while excluding a women's event, "discriminates against the plaintiffs in a substantive sense," Fenlon concludes.
Games On Soft Moral Ground?
Ski jumping is the last Winter Olympics sport closed to women.
"I just don't know why this is the last step, why it's so hard to take," says Anita DeFrantz, a former Olympic rower and a veteran IOC member from the United States. "There are women athletes there who deserve to show their skills and accomplishment, as the men do, on the Olympic platform."
The ruling means that the ski jumper who holds the distance record on the K95 "normal hill" in Vancouver won't get to compete at the games. Lindsey Van, 24, of Park City, Utah, has jumped farther than any man on the Olympic hill.
Van will watch on television as men try to beat her record at February's games. She's looking ahead to 2014, but she's not sure she can last that long in the sport given the lack of financial support for non-Olympic athletes.
"When you get into a sport of this caliber at a high level, people are making money through sponsors," Van says. "But it's hard to get a sponsor if you're not in the Olympics."
In Canada, there's concern that the ruling leaves the Olympics there on soft moral ground.
"If these were black Canadians and Jewish Canadians being excluded from the event, it would be intolerable," says Margot Young, who teaches constitutional and equality law at the University of British Columbia. "We should raise questions about what is going on at the Olympics."
The Vancouver Organizing Committee had supported the inclusion of a women's event in the 2010 ski jumping competition. In a statement, committee CEO John Furlong said, "We will continue to do everything we can to help these athletes achieve inclusion in future Games."