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Women Lobby for Olympic Ski Jumping Event


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Thousands of athletes are getting ready for the Winter Olympics in three months in Turin, Italy. But some women ski jumpers are instead preparing for the 2010 games in Vancouver, Canada. Their challenge is to convince world champion ski officials and Olympic organizers that women should be allowed to jump in competition at all, which they are not now. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN reporting:

It's a blustery fall day in Lake Placid, New York. Hundreds of feet above the ground, Alissa Johnson is sitting perched on a metal bar, dressed in a padded body suit. She stares through the visor of her helmet down the sharp incline.

(Soundbite of beeping signal)

MANN: The launch signal sounds and Johnson kicks off, crouched low over fat skis.

(Soundbite of skis)

MANN: She rockets out over the lip of the jump and for long seconds, she's flying. Listen closely and you'll hear the sound of her skis roaring like the wings of a jet airplane.

(Soundbite of skis gliding through air)

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah!

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah!

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah!

Unidentified Man #4: Whoo!

MANN: There's no snow. This time of year, ski jumpers land on a kind of rubber mat that's lubricated with water.

(Soundbite of Johnson landing on rubber mat)

MANN: Johnson is 18 years old and she's been jumping for more than a decade.

Ms. ALISSA JOHNSON (Ski Jumper): It's really hard to explain to someone that hasn't actually tried it before, but it's just an amazing rush. It's an amazing feeling.

MANN: Johnson lives in Park City, Utah. She's a student, but she's also one of the top women jumpers in the world. Her dream is to compete in Vancouver five years from now.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah, I definitely think that I've taken a lot of big steps forward to getting on in 2010. And right now we're ranked number-one team, so it's good. There's good hope for us.

MANN: Ski jumping is one of the last Olympic events that still exclude women. Casey Colby jumped for the men's team at the Winter Games in Nagano and now coaches the women's team. He says his athletes are ready.

Mr. CASEY COLBY (Coach, Women's US Ski Jumping Team): The boost of gender equity in sports has generated a lot more women in this sport in the last 15 years.

MANN: The US Ski and Snowboard Association has agreed to back the women's bid, but some top international ski officials in Europe aren't convinced their sport is ready.

Mr. GIAN FRANCO KASPER (International Ski Federation): To be very honest, at least at the moment, very few ladies who are really good in jumping.

MANN: Gian Franco Kasper heads the International Ski Federation based in Geneva, Switzerland. Without a formal request from his organization, the women's bid won't even reach the International Olympic Committee. Kasper concedes that there are talented women, but he says not enough.

Mr. KASPER: If you have a field now in some ladies' competitions with, let's say, 30 girls, four or five of them really jump.

MANN: Supporters of the women's sport say Europeans are leery of adding another event that would likely reward the Americans with more medals. Also, they say some Europeans still have old-fashioned ideas about women athletes and their toughness. Kasper admits that he's not sure jumping is the right sport for women's bodies.

Mr. KASPER: Don't forget, 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.

MANN: Doubts like these infuriate Peter Jerome, vice president of Women's Ski Jumping USA, based in Park City.

Mr. PETER JEROME (Vice President, Women's Ski Jumping USA): A couple years ago, we had a men's Continental Cup here, and two of the American women qualified as men into the second round.

MANN: Jerome says at least a dozen countries have talented women jumpers ready to compete.

(Soundbite of skier racing down a slope)

MANN: As another athlete launches down the slope, Alissa Johnson watches from the viewing deck. She's already paid a heavy price to get this far. One crash left her with a concussion; another required knee surgery. Now it's a question of winning acceptance from the men who've owned this sport for decades.

Ms. JOHNSON: You kind of like a sore thumb. You kind of stick out a little bit when you're a girl. But I think they're warming up to the idea. I mean, most of the athletes are. I think it's a lot of the older officials.

MANN: After this winter's competition, the International Ski Federation will debate the question of women's jumping. If they choose to back the event, a final decision will be made by the International Olympic Committee and by organizers in Vancouver. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Lake Placid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.