The Women of Nordic Combined Can to Look to Ski Jumpers for Hope
A Quick Film Review
As the Nordic combined competition gets underway at Beijing 2022 now, I'm reminded that this is now the only Olympic sport discipline - across both the Winter and Summer Games - that is exclusively contested by men. While there was some hope that this inequity would have been rectified in time for this year, the wait goes on. But momentum is on Nordic combined's women's side - they compete now on a World Cup circuit and in the Nordic World Ski Championships (since the 2020/21 season), and the International Olympic Committee's drumbeat toward gender equality is only getting louder under President Thomas Bach's tenure.
The fight to get women's ski jumping onto the Olympic program is the focus of director William Kerig's 2012 documentary film, Ready to Fly. Centered on the career of landmark world champion Lindsey Van, Kerig takes us through the tumultuous, growing pains-filled few years ahead of the 2011 IOC decision to add women to the ski jumping calendar for 2014.
"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."
That was the unfortunate position of then-president of the International Ski Federation, Gian Franco Kaspar in the mid-90s, and the perception these ski jumpers were battling against to earn respect as athletes looking for equal opportunity.
The Winter Games of Salt Lake 2002 - right in Van's Park City training ground - spurred awareness of the lack of support. Peter Jerome, the father of fellow competitor Jessica Jerome, launched Women's Ski Jumping USA to offer fundraising and promotion, leading to a push for inclusion at Vancouver 2010.
That the IOC declined to include the women for 2010 spurred a notorious court case that the women would eventually lose. Yet just the next year, buoyed by the support of the athletes' perseverance through a difficult 2011 World Championships, success was achieved with the announcement of women's ski jumping for the following Games.
It's warming in retrospect to know that the three leading athletes in Ready to Fly - Van, Jerome, and Sarah Hendrickson - all went on to compete in Sochi (finishing 15th, 10th, and 21st, respectively), allowing them to realize a dream for which they had fought for so long.
Ready to Fly doesn't take us through the Sochi Games - film production ended in 2011 - but the backstory to that Olympic debut is a testament to the struggle for equal rights and opportunity. Having to navigate a youth coaching system unused to women, to unfair team accommodation and travel support, to dismissive IOC representatives (the always blunt Dick Pound!) and the emotional toll of being the default spokesperson for the movement as world champion (Van)...these women (nevertheless) persisted.
So, the women - and all fans - of Nordic combined should take heart and inspiration...recent precedent is there, thanks to the ski jumpers of Ready to Fly. Fingers crossed for Milano Cortina 2026!