Competing While Female: On The Winter Olympics & Women's Sports


With eligibility of both women’s ski jumping and women’s hockey being called into question for the 2014 Olympic games, we have to ask: what role does sexism play in determining Olympic sports?

In 2006, the International Olympic Committee voted not to include women’s ski jumping in the 2010 games on the grounds that there simply weren’t enough qualified skiers. Since this decision, American ski jumper Lindsey Van has been trying to convince the IOC that they’re ready and eligible to compete. In 2009, Van and 14 other athletes filed a lawsuit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 games. They argued that, since Canada has laws against gender discrimination, government-funded organizations like the VANOC should not be able to discriminate against women on the basis of sex either. Although the court ruled that they were victims of gender discrimination, they found that the IOC was not covered under Canada’s charter, and not subject to Canadian law. Basically, ski jumpers are shit outta luck.

To make matters worse, some argue that ski jumping was nixed not because of a scarcity of athletes, but instead a patronizing concern for the weak female body. In January, Ruth Gregory wrote in guest post for Sociological Images that the “rumor that ski jumping damaged women’s ovaries and could lead to infertility…floated in the background of the many conversations that I had with coaches, ski jumpers and parents over the three years I was a part of the ski jumping world.”

Sexism plays a less obvious role in the debate over women’s hockey, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Women’s hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1998, when the first female teams competed at Nagano. The Americans brought home the gold that year, and since then, the U.S. and Canada have more or less ruled the game. However, this year the North American teams have been seeing such huge wins that some are wondering whether women’s hockey should remain an Olympic sport. The Canadian women’s team has won their first three games by 18-0, 10-0, and 13-1 respectively, and the U.S. team has won their three games by a combined 31-1. Hockey writers are none too impressed by this display of dominance, with several writers calling it “unsportswomanlike.” Kevin Amerman bemoaned the “embarrassing” win and told the Canadian time to “take it easy.” “You won’t see this behavior from the men,” he argued. Stu Cowan for the Montreal Gazette expressed a similar sentiment following Canada’s 18-0 win against Slovakia:

I wanted to scream out: “Okay! … enough already!” As the goals kept coming, the Canadian TV announcers actually talked about how Team Canada coach Melody Davidson would still be grilling her players at practice the next day about their mistakes – what, were they not supposed to allow any shots on goal? – and when a Slovak player shoved a Canadian from behind near the end of the game it was called “unfortunate.” Unfortunate? If it was an NHL game there probably would have been a brawl.
The Olympic motto is supposed to be swifter, higher, stronger; not beat, crush, destroy. It was an ugly game … and it should never have been allowed to happen.

Toronto columnist Steve Simmons fears that the “gap in talent is widening” as Canada and the U.S. have improved at a much swifter rate than other countries. If they continue to win at these rates, the IOC may end up pulling women’s hockey.

Even if we ignore the sexist undertones in both Cowan’s and Amerman’s pieces, the problem with women’s hockey is borne out of the same discrimination as the debate over women’s ski jumping. While no one is arguing that women’s hockey is damaging to the ovaries (at least, not yet), the continued discussion over whether two teams are too good rings with a familiar patronizing tone. And North American teams may be kicking ass, but part of the reason that they are able to do so comes from what CNN calls a “chauvinistic lack of funding” for women’s hockey players abroad. American and Canadian players have a distinct advantage over the other teams because they have had better training, more funding, and a more advanced program. Canadian coach Melody Davidson rightly calls it a “no-win situation” and points out that there is “a lot more patience on one side of the puck.” Fortunately, the IOC has not yet announced plans to cut women’s hockey, and there is chance that other teams will improve enough to become real contenders. As U.S. coach Mark Johnson points out, every team is playing the best than can, and even the non-medal winners have the honor of competing. “Their players are doing the same thing as our players and living the Olympic dream.”

Ski jumper Katie Willis hopes that she’ll get a chance to live the Olympic dream in 2014. Willis, along with several other athletes, was invited to be a “small part of the Olympics” and act as a forerunner (someone who jumps ahead of the competition to test the conditions) for the male ski jumpers. Both Willis and Alissa Johnson refused to play the role of tester, choosing instead to focus on getting women’s ski jumping approved for Sochi. “It’s kind of contradictory, like, why are we fighting in the first place?” remarked Johnson. “It shows them we’re O.K. with being on the sidelines.”

For Women’s Ski Jumpers, Olympic Chance Remains Elusive [NYT]
Olympics Bar Women From Ski Jumping, Except To Test The Hill [NYT]
In Women’s Hockey, Domination Is Cause For Concern [CNN]
Reproductive Rights And Athletics: The Curious Tale Of Female Ski Jumpers [Contexts]
Women’s Hockey Needs Mercy Rule [Montreal Gazette]

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