Women’s Ski Jumping Takes Aim at the Winter Olympics

By Byron Rempel

A century-and-a-half after a Norwegian woman soared 20 feet in the world’s first recorded ski-jumping event, female flyers were still fighting for international recognition.

At the first recorded event in history dedicated solely to ski jumping, one of the jumpers wore a skirt. Ingrid Olavsdottir Vestby probably 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.” She jumped in Trysil, Norway. She jumped in 1862. She landed in obscurity.

Today the history of women’s ski jumping has just begun to be written. Only in the 1990s were women first allowed to fully participate in international jumping competitions. For more than a century after Vestby’s historic jump, the spectacle of woman soaring on skis was widely regarded as dangerous, unhealthy, immoral, unladylike and unattractive. Of course, there’s a good explanation for the latter: the horror of mussed-up hair. Austrian Paula Lamberg, the “Floating Baroness” who set a world record in women’s ski jumping at 22 meters, was given grudging admiration in her country’s Illustrierte Zeitung magazine in 1910. But the quote provides a glimpse into the on-again, off-again history of women’s ski jumping—and the stubborn prejudice with which the sport has long been forced to contend.

“Jumps of this length are very good, even for men. 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.”

How embarrassing was that?

Women’s jumping were not on the schedule at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but they will be in 2014 at Sochi, Russia.

In November of 2006, in response to a proposal from the Fédération International de Ski (FIS), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that there was not enough technical merit among women ski jumpers to allow them on the jumps, and then immediately stated that the decision had nothing to do with gender. “There is no discrimination whatsoever,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said.

With a quick look at history, it becomes obvious that women’s exclusion has everything to do with gender. The reason too few women have been able to develop enough technical merit for the IOC’s standards is because they have been actively discouraged from ski jumping, from 1862 until today.

Under today’s helmets, nobody’s hair gets mussed, so that can’t be the problem. Could there be another reason why women have been kept from this last fortress of manliness?

Ladies Can’t Jump

At the beginning of the last century, the infant sport of skiing was introduced to North America by immigrant Norwegian miners and lumberjacks. They had a name for their sport: Ski-Idraet, meaning the sport of skiing that showcased high ethics, courage, discipline and physical fitness. By contrast, they preferred their women sweet, pleasant and soothing—and safely tucked away at home.

“To keep women away from sports and primarily men’s sports, medical arguments were quite often used,” says Annette Hofmann in her paper, “Female Eagles of the Air: Developments in Women’s Ski Jumping,” published in New Aspects of Sport History in 2007. “Vital energy theory,” for instance, said that women were born with a limited amount of energy; as child-bearers their bodies were reduced to “a morbid state” and thus were at risk when performing jumps, said Norwegian Christian Døderlein in 1896.

By the 1920s, doctors and female physical educators began to understand the importance of physical activity for women. They encouraged them to get out in winter, and enjoy themselves with skating, snowshoeing and skiing. But jumping was still out of the question. The latest medical concerns focused on the jolt of landing or a possible fall; at the time, uterine stress was believed to cause sterility. “Ski-jumping is not good for the female organism,” declared Gustave Klein-Doppler in the 1926 Wintersports Yearbook.

“This might be physiologically explained by the different construction of this sex. At this time there is no need or reason to organize jumping competitions for the ladies. Because of this unanswered medical question as to whether ski jumping agrees with the female organism, this would be a very daring experiment and should be strongly advised against.”

Those that spoke out against women in ski jumping even included sports women, like Germany’s Alpine World Champion skier Christl Cranz: “Cross-country skiing and ski jumping are athletic performances…for which a lot of strength and endurance is necessary, more than women can give without harming themselves…Certainly no reasonably sporting girl would think about participating in a marathon or boxing, and that is how it is with us women skiers; there is no interest in running or jumping competitions.”

Spooked mothers kept their daughters off ski jumps for more than half a century. Those fears and excuses seem positively Jurassic more than eighty years later. Imagine someone today saying, for instance: “Ski-jumping is like jumping down from, let’s say, about two meters off the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

Yet that’s what FIS and IOC official Gian Carlo Kasper said—in February of 2006. Meanwhile, women are participating in much more dangerous Olympic ski events, such as the downhill, in which racers are occasionally killed, and in the brand new skicross and snowboard cross, where four racers hurtle down a twisting, bumpy track at the same time.

At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Alissa Johnson sat on the sidelines and watched her brother slide down the inrun instead. “So far, we’ve been told every excuse in the book. That it’s too ‘dangerous’ for girls. That there aren’t enough of us. That we’re not good enough. That it would damage our ovaries and uterus and we won’t be able to have children, even though that’s not true. It’s so outdated; it’s kind of funny in a way. And then it’s not.”

To Make a Long History Short

Ingrid Vestby may have made a daring venture into ski jumping in 1862, but she certainly didn’t jump into any history books. She must have influenced a few of her fellow Norwegian women, however, because by 1896 there were enough of them to organize the first (unofficial) national ski-jumping competition for women.

The self-proclaimed Mecca of ski jumping, the mighty Holmenkollen, was built in 1892 to host the Norwegian national cross-country and jumping competitions, and Scandinavians held tight to their tradition. Even as they immigrated to North America, particularly the American Midwest, they set up their rickety scaffolding and continued to dominate the sport. Early men’s competitions literally put Norwegians in their own class to give newcomers a fighting chance at winning a prize of their own. Women didn’t have any class at all, on either side of the Atlantic. No woman would “diminish the allure of the sport” by being allowed to jump at Holmenkollen in Norway until 1978.

Official recognition didn’t stop them from jumping. In 1904, a Norwegian Miss Strang jumped 14.5 meters; Tim Ashburner’s History of Ski Jumping (Quiller Press, 2003) noted that the English Miss Hockin jumped “very gallantly” at the first British Ski Championship in 1911, landing seven meters without falling.

Probably the best-known woman jumper of the era—even of the century—was “the Floating Baroness” Paula Lamberg, from Kitzbühl, Austria. She set a record of 24 meters in the 1920s. By 1926, the Norwegian Olga Balsted Eggen had jumped 4.5 meters further.

The extent of the Baroness’ fame was obvious even in Canada in 1921. That year at an Ottawa jumping championship, the Montreal Star reported, spectators were shocked to see that the world title for ski jumping was going to be challenged by a woman. The flamboyant “Countess Alma Stang” soared off the platform, looking to set a new record—until her wig fell off and revealed her as a man in drag. It was a backhanded compliment to the Baroness.

Queens of the Skies

Before the 1990s, ski jumping for women probably enjoyed its biggest surge of popularity in the Roaring Twenties. When a new jump was built in 1922 in Brattleboro, Vermont, the first person to fly off it was the man who got it built, Fred Harris, founder of the Dartmouth Outing Club; the second person was his sister Evelyn. All over town, the local papers reported, “youthful interest manifested itself by the innumerable ski jumps built all over town by the boys and girls.”

It may have sounded like equal opportunity, but during the 1920s and 1930s women were kept off the official jumping programs. Norwegian stars like 14-year-old Hilda Braskerud and 17-year-old Johanne Kolstad matched the boys in their distances, but were regulated to jumping “outside” as “trail jumpers” during the breaks. After a decade of constant scolding by the Norwegian Ski Federation that “women’s cross-country skiing and ski jumping are not desirable,” Kolstad left for the USA. Re-christened the “Queen of the Skies,” she proved it by jumping a world record of 72 meters in 1938.

When women did go off the same jumps as men, they often went as “glider girls,” taking off while holding hands with a male partner—a trick that seems more dangerous than going solo.

One woman who didn’t want her hand held was Isabel Coursier. Born in Revelstoke, British Columbia, Isabel watched the boys leaping off the new jump there, but nobody thought to ask her to join them. Instead, at a winter carnival she entered the “ski-joring” competition, a race in which the skier is pulled behind a galloping horse. “She beat all the boys,” says Wendy Bryden in her book Canada at the Olympic Winter Games. That finally got her the invitation to jump on the “Boy’s Hill” on Mount Revelstoke.

By 1923 Coursier got on the big jump, and promptly bested the Baroness’ world record by jumping 25.5 meters (84 feet). She was the only woman on the jump that year to compete unassisted, and went on to soar from numerous jumps across North America. Her fame led to a jumping exhibition with men’s world-record holder Nels Nelson for then U.S. President Warren G. Harding.

Like Coursier, many other women were able to jump throughout North America, for the most part in winter carnivals. At Colorado’s Steamboat Springs, for example, “ladies and girls” had their own jumping events. One of the most notable jumpers was Beatrice (Bea) Kirby. Since 1993, a trophy in her name as been awarded to the best jumper.

Another exceptional (in every sense of the word) American jumper of the period was Dorothy Graves of Berlin, New Hampshire. After jumping with the Queen of the Skies at an indoor international meet at Madison Square Garden in 1938, she went on to a career competing with men in both Class A and B during the 1940s.

In 1924 at the first Winter Olympics (which weren’t given that title until a year later) in Chamonix, France, ski jumping was one of the original six sports. But despite all the proof of women’s skill and bravery in making world record jumps—despite the Floating Baroness, despite the Queen of the Skies, despite Isabel Coursier’s Presidential jumps—women’s ski jumping was banned from those first Games.

It would take the IOC until 1991 to rule that each event must have a female equivalent. They made an exception, of course, if the sport was “grandfathered” in without a women’s component…like jumping.

With such a lack of respect for their abilities, and without encouragement for future generations, women’s jumping soon faded into the background. Over the next decades even men’s ski jumping (with its high insurance premiums) lost popularity to slalom, downhill racing and ever more extreme sports. It took until 1972 for a woman to beat the 72-meter jump record of Johanne Kolstad. Anita Wold of Norway, who had started during men’s competitions and was the first woman to jump at Holmenkollen, jumped over 80 meters that year. Four years later, while trying to bust the 100-meter mark, she reached a world record of 97.7 meters in Sapporo, Japan. In 1981 Finnish jumper Tiina Lethola soared 110 meters. Then things got quiet again, until a girl who had begun ski jumping at six years old entered the scene and began to forever change the complexion of women’s ski jumping.

The First Competitions

A modern ski jumper slides onto a horizontal start bar. Beneath the skis drops a narrow strip of snow and ice 90 meters (300 feet) long, with two perfect tracks and only one way to go. As the light turns from red to green, the jumper shifts forward and commits to sliding down the track at 60 miles an hour. When the tracks end and the slope flattens at the take-off, the jumper springs forward, arms pinned to the sides, head just above the ski tips, splayed skis slicing the air.

And then, a few seconds later, they land back in reality.

In 1991, Austrian Eva Ganster and her friend Michaela Schmidt, who had both headed down those slick slopes since they were young girls, began ski jumping at competitions. Only there weren’t any competitions for women. They jumped at men’s events as pre-jumpers, or jumped against men, or if they were lucky, like Karla Keck in the United States, they jumped in junior competitions. At every turn, like most women before them, they fought against officials who did not want the girls to jump, no matter how successful they were.

But by the mid-1990s, both Ganster and Schmidt had secret weapons: their fathers. Dr. Edgar Ganster and Hans-Georg Schmidt saw no reason why their daughters were not allowed to compete.

FIS officials trotted out that century-old scare of the female uterus bursting upon landing, but Dr. Ganster was having none of it. He and Schmidt began to push towards getting women their own jumping competitions so their daughters would have a place to show their stuff.

It soon paid off. Eva Ganster made a pre-jumper appearance at the famed Viersschanzentournee (Four Hills Tournament) in Europe, and then in 1994 made a breakthrough by starting as a pre-jumper at the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. She was 16 years old, and set a women’s world record of 113.5 meters at that event.

The FIS cautiously began to notice the girls, and in 1994 set up a group to study the possibility of accepting women. Meanwhile, in 1995 women were allowed demonstration jumps at the FIS Nordic World Cup in Thunder Bay, Canada, and again in 1997 in Trondheim, Norway.

By that time Ganster had set another record by being the first woman to jump on a ski-flying hill, designed for long jumps; she set a new women’s world record of 167 meters. Six years later fellow Austrian Daniela Iraschko would break the record with a 200-meter jump.

That summer of 1997, the first international meet for young female jumpers was held in Voukatti, Finland. It was a slow start; the competition was unofficial, the girls jumped in the men’s pre-program, and they were given no score. Not content with that, Dr. Ganster and Mr. Schmidt then organized a girls-only competition at the Junior World Championships in St. Moritz in 1998, hosting 17 jumpers from seven countries on a 90-meter jump. It was not sanctioned by the FIS.

With that minor success, the fathers put together a Ladies’ Grand Prix as a counterpart to the Four Hills Tournament for 1999. The 13-day tourney hosted 29 women from nine countries, with five different competitions. That year too, the US Ski Association included for the first time a women’s class in the US Ski Jumping Championships.

By the 2002-2003 season, the Ladies’ Grand Prix became the FIS Ladies’ Tour Ski Jumping; that summer a Summer-Tournee Ski-Jumping was established as well, and in the United States, FIS-sanctioned ski jumping competitions were held with five competing nations. But the USSA still refused women the opportunity to win prize money at the national level, even though they did so in all other skiing disciplines.

At the Nordic National Jumping Championships in Steamboat Springs, Colorado that season, coaches and parents pressured the USSA to get a prize together for the girls. The organization yielded, and a big deal was made of presenting a check so large three people had to hold it up. The amount first place winner Jessica Jerome received was $150. The men’s winner took home $1,200.

Thanks to Eva Ganster’s record-making jumps and her father’s history-making stubbornness, the Austrian Ski Federation became the first country to form a national female ski-jumping team in 2000, with its first members Ganster and Iraschko (Ganster retired in 2005). The next year, both Norway and Japan had national teams too, followed by Canada in 2004 and Germany in 2005. Although the United States had a team by 2004 (and a regular sponsor in VISA), the USSA accepted the American team in 2006. Since then, the Germans have ranked first in the world in women’s ski jumping, followed closely by the United States.

Another event in 2004 triggered more attention for the women jumpers. One of the best female jumpers of all time who had already won the Holmenkollen women’s title in 2004 and 2005, Norwegian Anette Sagen, was not allowed to jump K185, the Ski Flying platform in Vikersund. Torbjørn Yggeseth, FIS chairman of the ski jump committee, opposed Sagen, saying the jumping ability of women was not good enough to jump at international venues like this one. Media coverage was ferocious, and the debate led to an open battle over women’s rights in sports.

That same year, the FIS allowed the women the “B” category. The points won during the Grand Prix count for the Grand Prix and the total score of the Continental Cup, now the closest thing to a World Cup and “A” status for women jumpers. In 2006, women had their own category at the Junior World Championships in Slovenia.

All that was missing was their own World Cup, and inclusion in the Olympics.

The Real Fear Factor

By the mid-1990s, men’s ski jumping was in a deep crisis. Fabled Norway had more ski jumps than jumpers in the Norwegian Federation. Sexy and more dangerous sports like inverted aerials, skicross and snowboard cross were all over the place—and women were doing them. Those factors may have contributed to the FIS finally recognizing the first women’s ski jumping event on the eve of the new millennium. What took them so long?

There are a few theories, but it’s the way officials act towards the athletes themselves that gives the broadest clues. When FIS ski-jump chairman Yggeseth denied the “little girls” the right to ski fly, he said most jumpers were “doing something similar to sledding. They should stay on the small hills,” he counseled.

This kind of belittling of women jumpers happens, says Annette Hofmann, because “There is a hidden fear that women will be as good as men, and thus threaten men’s dominance.” A study published in the Journal of Biomechanics (commissioned by the FIS and IOC) proved that women jumpers could become “a real competitive threat,” thanks to their lower body weight. Both organizations introduced strict rules in 2004 to take away any weight advantage—men were already “dieting to the point of illness,” said an official in SKI magazine. Anorexia in men, traditionally a female disorder, has contributed to the fear that the sport (judged not only on distance but by mellifluous style as well) will be taken over by women. More concretely, there’s a real fear that women asking for a piece of the pie would cut into resources like contracts, prize money and positions.

Not in My Olympics

Nothing helped get women into the Olympics in 2010, including the fact that women’s ski jumping was a demonstration sport at the 2006 Olympics. Not even the historic decision on May 26, 2006, when the FIS accepted that women jumpers would have their own World Cup at the 2009 Nordic World Ski Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic. Or the FIS decision to let women have a team event at the 2011 World Championships.

The IOC’s decision to ban women from ski jumping in the Games (they had done it in 1998, 2002 and 2006 as well) were:

• Women’s jumping was still developing in its early stages

• It lacked a sufficient number of countries participating

• It didn’t meet the technical standards required

Also cited was the problem that two world championships had not been held. That rule seemed flexible—women’s cross-country skiing had its first world championship two years after it was accepted in the Olympics in 1952. Then one year after the IOC’s decision to disallow women, the rules were changed to a sport only needing one world championship.

“There are 80 women” ski jumping, IOC President Jacques Rogge said. “In any other sport you are speaking about hundreds of thousands, if not tens of millions of athletes, at a very high level, competing for one single medal. We do not want the medals to be diluted and watered down.”

Those in the sport come up with different numbers than the IOC. Jumpers claimed there were 135 elite female ski jumpers registered internationally, in 16 countries. To put that in perspective, snowboard cross had 34 female competitors in ten countries; bobsled had 26 women in 13 countries; and the new skicross had 30 women in 11 countries.

In 2006 Women’s Ski Jumping USA said that “there are more women jumpers worldwide, and competing on a higher scale, now than there were women competing in bobsled or skeleton at the time those sports were added to the Olympic program for women.”

A Legal Right?

American downhill and World Cup overall champion Lindsey Van is a fighter, and she’s hungry. She’s been jumping internationally since she was 13 in a sport that itself is fighting for recognition. She parties hard, she works hard at her sport, and she works hard at keeping her weight in line. “I’ve been hungry for twelve years,” she says.

In May of 2008, a who’s who of international women’s jumping stars filed lawsuit in the British Columbia Supreme Court against the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), the host of the 2010 Olympics. Canadian taxpayers footed a $580 million bill, they claim, for facilities with a men’s only sign; lawyer Ross Clark said that the absence of a women's competition is a violation of Canada's equal rights law, which is guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights.

The plaintiffs included Lindsey Van, along with Americans Jessica Jerome and Karla Keck, Annette Sagen of Norway, Daniela Iraschko of Austria, Jenna Mohr and Ulrike Grassler of Germany, Monika Planinc of Slovenia, and retired Canadian Marie-Pierre Morin (who had earlier moved to the U.S. after facing discrimination in Canada). Seventeen-year old Canadian Zoya Lynch joined the lawsuit later, but has since resigned from the Canadian team “out of frustration.”

“We're not asking for a new sport,” said Jessica Jerome's father, Peter, the vice president of Women's Ski Jumping USA. “We're not asking for a new discipline. We're just asking that an existing Olympic event allow women to compete.”

Yet the protests of women ski jumpers  did not fly. “It’s not a human rights case,” says Dick Pound, the Montreal lawyer and chancellor of McGill University—and member of the IOC since 1978. “It’s a decision on the part of the IOC. And it’s not going to stand them in good stead to sue a bunch of grumpy old men.”

Pound is no stranger to controversy and protests, and may even include himself in the Grumpy Old Men category. He was a mediator on the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Chair of the Anti-Doping Agency, and as the ethics watchdog for the IOC, the investigator of the Salt Lake City Olympic scandal.

“They’ve missed the mark,” he said of the plaintiffs’ suing VANOC for not letting women use a Canadian facility, “because women will use the jump before and after the Olympics.” (The Continental Cup for women took place at Whistler in the middle of December 2008.) Conversely, “The International Committee is using that facility for just one event.”

Instead, Pound says women jumpers should look to the real source of their problem: the FIS. “We looked at the proposal from the FIS [in 2006]. It was made without much enthusiasm. It was made with them knowing the IOC would refuse it. The FIS have not done their job in promoting women’s jumping.”

Do the Right Thing

The long struggle of women jumpers for recognition is not the first time the FIS has dug in its heels against new sports. There was that incident in the last century where an upstart and extreme version of skiing tried for recognition too, and came up hard against a “Scandinavian ski aristocracy.” The new-fangled thing—out of Britain, mind you—was slalom and downhill skiing, first raced in 1921. The FIS banned slalom and downhill from the first “international world ski championship” (only later called the Winter Olympics) in 1924 at Chamonix, as founding editor Morten Lund has written in these pages. Those new sports missed two more Olympics, those in 1928 at St. Moritz and in 19832 at Lake Placid, and Alpine ski racing’s acceptance into official world competition came only in 1936 at the Garmisch Olympics after having been “delayed at least ten years past the time when it was ripe.” There was, however, a plus side: At Garmisch, for the first time, women had their own slalom and downhill competitions.

Cold comfort for women ski jumpers, perhaps, but what else do they have to hold on to? Well, for one thing, perhaps the International Olympic Committee’s own mission statement and charter?

First there was the new equality rule of 1991 that called for each sport to have male and female components. That didn’t work. Then there was the announcement in 1996 that “The IOC strongly encourages by appropriate means, the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, particularly in the executive bodies of national and international sports organizations with a view to the strict application of the principle of equality of men and women.” That from the IOC, an executive body consisting of 15 men and one woman.

And then there’s the part of the Official Mission and Role of the IOC that says the Olympics will:

6. Act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement;

7. Encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.