Sitting over breakfast with documentary film producer Nicholas Shumaker in Tribeca one windy morning in March my mind was wandering over my appointment schedule for the day. It was early, I hadn't quite focused on our conversation and, well, Nick has a tendency to mumble.
What suddenly caught my attention was the phrase, "women barred from the Olympics" and I perked up, waiting to hear that some misguided, misogynistic country was oppressing its women athletes. "So anyway" he mumbled, "I know that you have a bee in your bonnet about women's rights and I thought if anybody can pull this thing together in less than a month you can."
Wait, pull what together? The confusion on my face was obvious because with an eyeroll he launched into his story again.
He was working on a film with a former Rolling Stone editor named Alex Mar. The film, called Fighting Gravity, chronicles the plight of female ski jumpers who have been barred from the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver because of their sex. They are the elite athletes in their sport, amassing medals and records in competitions throughout the world but are prohibited from participating in the pinnacle event in their sport - the Olympics.
Although both men and women have been ski jumping since the late 19th century, the president of the International Ski Federation and member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Gian Franco Kaspar, had admitted on-air that because of repeated hard landings he felt that the sport "seems not to be appropriate for the ladies from a medical point of view." Following public outrage Kasper recanted but American ski jumper Jessica Jerome feels that ski jumping remains "an all boys club."
The IOC claims that their rejection of allowing a women's ski jumping event at the games was a result of "technical merit." This is a difficult statement to stand behind when you consider that there are 166 active women ski jumpers from 18 countries registered with the International Ski Federation. At the time of their denial by the IOC in November 2006, 83 women from 14 nations were registered with the FIS for women's ski jumping compared to 30 women from 10 nations registered for skier cross (a freestyle event conceived in the 1990s). Skier Cross was added to the 2010 Olympic program while female ski jumpers were invited to reapply for their sport's inclusion in the 2014 Olympics despite the 114 to 1 recommendation by the sports governing body the Federation of International Skiing.
Seeing no other alternative fifteen elite ski jumpers from a dozen countries have filed a lawsuit against the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the right to compete in the 2010 Olympic Games. My involvement stemmed from Nick's concept of hosting a fundraiser in New York to assemble important influencers who could help put the pressure on the IOC to do the right thing. We would preview a short segment of the film Fighting Gravity and give guests a chance to speak with top jumpers like Americans Jessica Jerome and Alissa Johnson, in effect trying to give a face to the issue. I had less than a month to find a venue, sponsors, assemble press materials and craft a guest list for what would be a last effort to rally support before the court hearing.
Eliciting a response wasn't the hard part. New Yorkers proved themselves every bit as heated as I had hoped. I found myself discussing the issue at dinner parties, bridal showers, lunches, on subways and trips to the hairdresser. I may have sounded like a broken record but come on! Women are prohibited from competing in an Olympic sport. The idea is ludicrous.
On February 20, 2009 American Lindsey Van won the gold medal in the Women's Ski Jump World Championship in Liberec Czech Republic. The last medal won by an American was in 1924. Lindsey now holds the record for the longest jump of a male or female on the normal hill that will be used in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. The IOC continues to deny female ski jumpers' cause and their repeated requests for meetings.
As recently as this month, Women's Ski Jumping USA reached out to Dr. Jacques Rogge, the president of the IOC and urgently requested a chance to speak with him about their exclusion. His office publicly responded that he was willing to meet with them but was simply too busy with his travel schedule. In response Women's Ski Jumping USA vice president Vic Method offered to fly the ski jumpers anywhere in the world if it meant some face time with Rogge. The IOC responded with a terse letter explaining that Rogge was unable to meet because of their lawsuit and reiterating that the Olympic program was set for 2010. Women's ski jumping would not be included.
The Olympics is a dream that every athlete has and every athlete deserves to have," says Canadian ski jumper Nata de Leeuw, who took 11th place at the recent World Championships last month in Liberec. She and her fellow plaintiffs feel that the lawsuit is their last possible option to get to Vancouver in 2010. Gian Franco Kasper has urged the athletes not to "make too much noise" and to focus on reapplying for 2014. The lawsuit is considered a blemish on the face of the games and it is clear that the IOC just wants these women to quietly skulk away.
"A precedent does exist for the IOC to reverse its decisions even at the last minute," points out Deedee Corradini, president of Women's Ski Jumping-USA. "Only a short time before the 1984 Los Angeles games began, the IOC allowed women to participate in the marathon."
It is this last minute reversal that the plaintiffs are hoping to achieve but it is, at best, a long shot. Hopefully the publicity that Alex Mar's new film has sparked will increase the pressure on the IOC to relent in their adamant refusal to allow women to participate.
Doing the rounds at Norwood the other night, raven haired director Alex Mar rallied the crowd, reminding everyone that, "These women are elite athletes in an extremely high risk sport and are just as talented and competitive as the men in their field. It is outrageous that they are barred from the games because of their sex." The roomful of normally nonchalant New Yorkers, an amalgamation of executives, socialites, film producers and actors, seemed genuinely at rapt attention. But as one enchanted guest later explained, that could also be because Alex Mar is gorgeous.
The lawsuit will be heard on April 20, 2009.
Watch the movie trailer below: