When Wombs Fly!
Last Tuesday, February 11, the German athlete Carina Vogt became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the women’s ski jump event. The sport itself is not new; ski jumping dates back to the early twentieth century, and men have been competing in the event at the Olympics since 1924. But until these 2014 games in Sochi, the International Olympic Committee refused again and again to allow women to participate – even when faced with mounting pressure from female skiers who wanted to compete in the 2006 and 2010 games.
And their rationale for denying women entry was incredibly stupid.
In recent years, the official reasons given by the International Olympic Committee for rejecting women’s ski jumping were, first, that the women’s version of the sport did not meet the standards of an Olympic event, and, second, that there were not a sufficient number of qualified female ski jumpers. Proponents of women’s ski jumping, however, countered that these were self-fulfilling prophecies. Ross Clark, an attorney who represented female ski jumpers in a lawsuit prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, pointed out that discrimination itself was holding the sport back. If women were allowed to compete at elite levels, women’s ski jumping would advance:
“The canard of ‘not being ready yet’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once a sport becomes an ‘Olympic Sport,’ it has been repeatedly demonstrated that it will attract the money required to raise the overall standards and competitiveness. There is a history of this.”
Besides, the IOC had already accepted other women’s sports, such as bobsledding, under similar conditions. And there were female ski jumpers who absolutely were qualified to compete at elite levels. In a preliminary event before the 2010 Vancouver games, Lindsey Van, who was not ultimately allowed to compete in the actual event, performed the longest jump off the “normal” hill of any jumper, male or female. So the IOC’s official reasons were rather flimsy, and that’s because, as others have pointed out (for example, here and here), they weren’t the real reasons.
The real issue with women’s ski jumping had to do with . . . wait for it . . . uteruses.
Well, uteruses and sexism.
In the early twentieth century, ski jumping – like a number of other physical activities – was characterized as inappropriate for women because of its purported consequences: sexual problems, reproductive ailments, and infertility. During the 1800s and early 1900s, gynecologists warned women that their reproductive organs needed careful protection, that strenuous physical exertion (even, if some physicians were to be believed, strenuous mental exertion) would harm these delicate tissues. And since doctors basically defined women by their reproductive organs during this time, this potential harm was perceived as especially catastrophic.
For those who know something about gender and medical history, then, it’s not surprising – or even especially remarkable – that ski jumping was seen as harmful to women’s bodies in the early twentieth century. What is worth discussing, though, is how these arguments about women’s delicate reproductive organs continued to be used against female ski jumpers for almost a century. In 2005 (2005!), Gian Franco Kasper, the president of the International Ski Federation, stated publicly that ski jumping appeared “not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” That’s some pretty outdated scientific data he was using.
His comments disgusted Lindsey Van, who responded:
“It just makes me nauseous. Like, I kind of want to vomit. Like, really? Like, I’m sorry, but my baby-making organs are on the inside. Men have an organ on the outside. So if it’s not safe for me jumping down, then my uterus is going to fall out, what about the organ on the outside of the body?”
Oh, and on that subject – there are sports that do damage men’s reproductive organs. Studies have shown that competitive cycling, for example, can damage the quality of men’s sperm, leading to infertility. And yet I have not seen anyone suggesting that men should refrain from cycling. Because, you know, women are different! In other words: sexism.
And make no mistake: sexism is alive and well in the world of Olympic sports. Last month, the Russian ski coach Alexander Arefyev explained straightforwardly that if he had a daughter, he’d “never let her jump – it’s too much hard labor. Women have another purpose – to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.” Awesome.
The bottom line is that there is a very long history of barring women from various physical sports – bicycling until the 1920s, marathoning until the 1970s, ski jumping until the 2010s – both because of their delicate lady parts and because of their proper roles as wives and mothers. And this has not stopped. The female ski jumpers made history in Sochi last week, but their victory was limited. They were allowed only to compete in the smaller “normal” jump – not in the large hill jump (which many of them could certainly do) or in the team event. The fight’s not over yet.
For Further Reading:
McGregor, Deborah Kuhn. From Midwives to Medicine: The Birth of American Gynecology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
Verbrugge, Martha H. Able-Bodied Womanhood: Personal Health and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Boston. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Verbrugge, Martha H. Active Bodies: A History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.