Girls just want to ski jumpby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
Female ski jumpers are pressuring the International Olympic Committee to create a women's event in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Ski jumping is the only event in the Winter Olympics that excludes female athletes.
Girl jumpers in Minnesota are closely watching the fight.
St. Paul, Minn. — If there is a future for women's ski jumping, you'll find it at the top of the steepest ski hill in the eastern suburb of Maplewood.
The 46 meter ramp at the St. Paul Ski Club looks like a forbidding wooden roller coaster. Twelve-year-old girls sporting spandex and helmets swoop down the hill and launch into the air like miniature stuntwomen.
As Karin Friberg sees it, ski jumping has more to do with physics than flair.
"You're doing something with your body that your body is telling you not to do," she said.
At 103 pounds, Friberg is the state's reigning queen of ski jumping.
But on a recent Friday night, the 18-year-old from Roseville is just a spectator in a sherpa hat rooting for the younger athletes in the minus-6 degree cold.
Friberg recently placed 29th in the junior world championships. While she isn't ready to compete at the Olympic level, she could have a shot in 2014 or future years.
That is, if the powers-that-be ever open the event to women.
The littler athletes, like 12-year-old Michaela Arneson, dream of that day. But Michaela, of Hudson, Wis., says even she knows not to get carried away.
"Sometimes people tell me, 'Do you want to go to the Olympics one day?' And I say, 'Well, I really can't because they don't let girls into the Olympics for ski jumping,'" Michaela said.
Ski jumping used to be as Minnesotan as ice fishing. Norwegian immigrants brought the sport to Midwestern hilltops in the 1800s.
Retired Olympic ski jumper Kip Sundgaard says Minnesota helped put American ski jumping on the map in the 1960s. That was before the state became obsessed with hockey.
"The Balfanzes, the Kotlareks, Adrian Watt from Duluth," he said, citing legends from the state. "Anybody who was anybody in ski jumping in the U.S. was from Minnesota," Sundgaard said.
Over the years, ski jumpers passed their love for the sport onto their sons -- and their daughters. And parents like John Lyons are outraged by what they consider Olympic-level chauvinism.
"I've watched several girls grow up in this sport with the same dreams and aspirations that the boys have," Lyons said. "And they're denied that privilege. I think there's a couple of old farts in charge out there that ought to be put out in a barn."
A spokeswoman with the International Olympic Committee told MPR in an email saying the IOC stands by its position: that there are too few women jumping at the elite levels to justify having their own event. The IOC president recently told reporters that creating a women's event would dilute the Olympic medal standard.
But supporters of women's ski jumping disagree, saying they have more than 150 active competitors around the world.
Women's ski jumping pioneer Karla Keck of Oconomowoc, Wis., sees herself in the younger girls she now coaches. Keck grew up competing head to head with the boys. She used to think her jumps would serve as proof that women could jump at the Olympic level.
But Keck said opponents would come up with one excuse after another to keep women out -- like the one about hard landings, and how they could harm women's bodies.
"You know, damage their ovaries because they're hollow inside," she said with a laugh.
Now 32, Keck is developing the sport among younger women who have a chance of one day going for gold.
But she says it's heartbreaking to see elite athletes work so hard for a mere "maybe."
"It is really hard to get yourself ready to do everything it takes, to train to be an Olympic athlete and keep yourself at that level, and then have somebody say, 'Nope, not this year. You're not going to be part of this Olympics,'" Keck said.
She's still holding out hope that there's enough time for the IOC to change its mind.
In Canada, women ski jumpers have filed a complaint with the country's Human Rights Commission citing gender discrimination.
At the St. Paul Ski Club, the young jumpers say the decision to bar women from the Olympics isn't fair.
But for now, they'll just focus on having fun and making each jump better than their last.
- All Things Considered, 03/18/2008, 4:54 p.m.