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When Olympic ski jumping starts outside Beijing tomorrow, the women will wear different suits than they did four years ago. They no longer have extra paneling around the hips, which some athletes say was unnecessary and even sexist. The new suits are now more similar to the men's, but women say there's still a long battle ahead toward gender equality in ski jumping. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell reports.
EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: It can be really hard to tell ski jumpers apart. Earlier this winter, the top American men and women went flying down the Olympic jump in Lake Placid, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF SKIS SLIDING)
RUSSELL: They wear these big, round helmets and tight-fitting goggles, and their skis are so wide, they kind of look like wings. I pull one of the women aside and ask about the other big part of their gear - the suits.
LOGAN SANKEY: Yes. They're so flattering, right?
RUSSELL: That is Logan Sankey. She's from Steamboat Springs, Colo. On this day, she's wearing a black-and-white suit. It's made out of a foamy material that ends up flattening most of Sankey's curves, which she's just fine with.
SANKEY: It's not about how it looks, or it shouldn't be about how it looks. It's about how we can use it to fly further.
RUSSELL: But for years, every female ski jumper around the world had to have these extra panels sewn in around her hips. The International Ski Federation, known as FIS, says that design was meant to fit a woman's body better, but two-time Olympic ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson doesn't buy that.
SARAH HENDRICKSON: They were trying to come up with ways that accentuated our hips and our curves a little bit more.
RUSSELL: FIS denies this was its intention, but in 2020, those panels were gone. FIS said it was just easier to make the suits without them. Anders Johnson agrees. He sews ski jumping suits for Team USA and says he never saw the need for the hip panels.
ANDERS JOHNSON: It was silly. I mean, from someone who makes the suits, it was just more pieces. More pieces equals more sewing, and it just was silly.
RUSSELL: Every inch of a ski jumper's suit matters, so focusing on function over fashion - that's progress. But Logan Sankey says there are still some big battles ahead for women in the sport.
SANKEY: It's not like the suit was changed, then everyone was like, yay, equality in ski jumping. Like, it's like, OK, great. We have suits that are a little more functional, but, like, let's make changes in these other areas as well.
RUSSELL: On the professional circuit, women take home about 70 to 80% less money than the men, and there are just fewer events, fewer chances to compete, both on the annual World Cup circuit and at the Olympics. Abigail Strate is competing in Beijing for the Canadian Olympic ski jumping team. She's really excited to be there, but she's also kind of frustrated. There are only two ski jumping events where women get to compete and four where men can compete.
ABIGAIL STRATE: That's that many more opportunities at an Olympic medal. That's that many more opportunities to, like, put yourself out there and show yourself as an athlete.
RUSSELL: The International Ski Federation says the women's side of the sport is still young. While men have ski jumped at the Olympics since the first Winter Games nearly a century ago, women weren't allowed to compete until 2014. Sarah Hendrickson took that historic first jump for the U.S. women at the Sochi Games. She's retired from the sport now but serves on the FIS Athlete Commission, pushing for more opportunities for female ski jumpers.
HENDRICKSON: I sit in those board meetings that are 98% men and just try and respectfully give the opinion of what's happening and the progression of the sport.
RUSSELL: What's happening is that more young girls are jumping off of big hills. The sport is growing, but Hendrickson says that growth is not a given. Some women are still working extra jobs to pay for travel. What she and others want now for women is equal pay, equal chances to compete. They say they've earned it. For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Lake Placid, N.Y.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILA BRAZILLIA'S "A ZED AND TWO L'S")
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