Posted January 27th, 2009
I love the Olympic Games. Of course, I’m far from objective, since I’ve been involved in seven Winter Olympics in various capacities. But I’m enough of a romantic idealist to still believe in Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of bringing together the youth of the world in an international celebration of inspiring athletic competition. In the words of Bud Greenspan, who has made a career spanning several decades filming unforgettable Olympic moments, “Ask not alone for victory, ask for courage. For if you can endure, you bring honour to yourself. Even more, you bring honour to us all.”
I am not such a big fan of the International Olympic Committee, the organization responsible for keeping de Coubertin’s vision alive. Members of the IOC tend to take themselves too seriously, in my opinion, often expecting, even demanding, VIP treatment everywhere they go. Some of the dark underbelly of the IOC’s methods was revealed in the bribery scandal preceding the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. I also believe that the IOC has, until very recently, ignored the growing cancer of illegal performance enhancement, or doping, in Olympic sports, out of a fear of tarnishing the image, and therefore the marketing value of the five rings.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the IOC has faced some very thorny issues. When de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in 1896, he envisioned a gathering of amateur sportsmen and sportswomen who participated purely for the joy of competition. Professional athletes were virtually unknown at the time. But by the final decades of the twentieth century, athletes who made a living at their sport were commonplace, and a strict interpretation of the amateurism rules would have eliminated many of the world’s best from Olympic competition.
Inevitably the IOC becomes embroiled in global politics. Because the whole world is watching, the Olympics become a vehicle for every cause to get its message to a global audience. The most tragic example was the attack of Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Munich Summer Games, which resulted in the death of 11 Israeli athletes. In 1976, several African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics to protest New Zealand’s rugby team playing a match in apartheid South Africa. Four years later, the Moscow Games were marred by the absence of large delegations from the United States, Japan, and West Germany, all protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, much of the Communist bloc reciprocated by keeping their athletes home from Los Angeles. Appearing relatively mild by comparison were last summer’s demonstrations, drawing attention to China’s human rights violations and appeals for Tibet’s freedom during the Olympic torch run.
Having thus acknowledged the difficult decisions the IOC has faced through the decades, I can’t understand their position on a current controversy: their refusal to permit ski jumping events for women at next winter’s Olympics in Vancouver. According to recent news reports, it seems to me that IOC president Jocques Rogge is hiding behind a flimsy technicality that requires a sport to have had at least two World Championship events before it can be considered for inclusion on the Olympic program.
Not long ago, ski jumping rivaled biathlon, ice hockey, and bobsled as the most macho of all winter Olympic sports. Ironically, it was ski jumping that experienced a transformation not long ago that provided women an advantage. For generations, ski jumping was the domain of tough, steel-nerved daredevils, who were willing to squat on massive skis thundering down an icy inrun at 70 miles per hour, then launch themselves into the air. In addition to courage, the sport required powerful thighs and excellent timing. Then, a young innovative jumper discovered that by spreading his skis from the traditional parallel position into a V, while in flight, he achieved greater lift, and thus a longer flight. Soon, the medal winners in major jumping competitions no longer looked like NFL halfbacks with thighs like tree trunks, but young boys who floated to the bottom of the hill. And the girls were not far behind.
As with most issues in international sports, I’m sure politics plays a role. I suspect the Canadian and American women have been quick to gain experience and expertise in ski jumping, while their typically conservative European counterparts have been slower to adopt the sport. As a result, those European nations historically strong in jumping will be reluctant to support an expansion to women’s events. I also suspect there is a little concern among the “good ole’ boys” that one of these scrappy, determined, 100-pound women will be the one setting the distance records on all the ski jumping hills.
Better get used to it, guys. Just let the women jump!
John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, VT, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.