Olympics Blog

News about the Summer and Winter Games

« Previous Post | Olympics Blog Home | Next Post »

To walk the walk about supporting women, IOC must pick softball for 2016

August 6, 2009 |  1:42 pm


(2008 Olympic medalists from Japan, the United States and Australia make the case for their sport at the end of the Beijing Olympic competition.  Associated Press / Amy Sancetta)

Next Thursday, when its executive board announces the two sports chosen for possible addition to the 2016 Summer Games, the International Olympic Committee has another chance to make a better statement about its support for female athletes than the one it issued after a Canadian judge said the IOC had discriminated by not allowing female ski jumpers into the 2010 Winter Olympics.

All the IOC has to do is pick softball, a women's Olympic sport that has been a solid addition to the program of four Summer Games before being dropped after 2008, partly because IOC member Jim Easton of the United States took the ethical high ground,  a position many IOC members rarely stake out.

More on that later.

The ski jumpers are appealing British Columbia Supreme Court justice Lauri Ann Fenlon's decision, which came down a month ago, but it seems unlikely they will win. 

Fenlon ruled for the IOC's exclusion of female jumpers based strictly on jurisdictional issues over governance of the Olympics, which she decided was the purview of the IOC and not the Canadian courts.

But she also made it clear who the bad guy was.

"The IOC made a decision that discriminates against the plaintiffs,'' Fenlon wrote. "Only the IOC can alleviate that discrimination by including an Olympic ski jumping event for women in the 2010 Games.''

The IOC sounded miffed when it reacted to Fenlon's ruling by saying "we (I guess that is the royal "we'') strongly disagree with the court's analysis that the IOC acted in a discriminatory manner.  Van As previously explained, our decision was based on technical issues, without regard to gender.''

Those issues related to the relatively low number of female jumpers worldwide and the quality of competitive depth.
As I noted in a Blog on this subject last March, when Lindsey Van of the United States won the first world title in women's jumping, those arguments don't really hold water.  There were more jumpers (36) from nearly as many countries (13) at worlds as there were sleds and countries (32-17) in the men's two-man event at bobsled worlds, where the top four sleds were significantly better than the rest, and men's bobsledding has a nearly 100-year Olympic history

Fenlon rejected the IOC's technical-issues stance in another way.

"If the IOC had applied the criteria for admission of new events to both men's and women's ski jumping events,'' she wrote, "neither group would be competing in the 2010 Games.''

Men's ski jumping was included at the first Winter Olympics in 1924.  In the sixth, at Oslo in 1952, there were only 44 jumpers from 13 countries (of the 30 total countries at those Games).  In the most recent Winter Games, three years ago, only 21 of the 79 participating nations had ski jumpers.
The IOC could have looked a lot nobler -- and put its money where its philosophical mouth is -- by allowing 20 or 24 female jumpers to compete at the Vancouver Games, whose organizers were ready to accommodate them.

Instead, it looked misogynistic, male chauvinistic -- or, as the judge said, discriminatory, a characterization Anita that pained IOC member and 1976 rowing bronze medalist Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles.

"I am upset to be part of an organization that could be called discriminatory,'' DeFrantz said, "and excluding women jumpers is a textbook case of discrimination.''
So is this:  The IOC, which chooses its own members, has 107; just 16 are women.  The IOC has 15 executive board members; one is a woman.  The IOC has 20 permanent  commissions; the chair of only one is a woman.  Which one?  (Please don't laugh.)  The Commission on Women and Sport, chaired by DeFrantz.

To be fair, the percentage of female athletes in the Olympics, both winter and summer, has increased dramatically in the last 30 years, with most of the gain made under the leadership of former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.  He may have come from a macho culture (Spain), but Samaranch also appointed the first female IOC member in 1981.

The current president, Jacques Rogge, would increase his street cred on gender equity were softball to get back on the program.  Softball was dropped in a 2005 vote when a simple majority was needed to retain it, and it fell one vote short.  Jim Easton would have been that vote, but he recused himself because his company, Easton Sports, makes so much softball equipment it stood to gain by the sport's Olympic inclusion.

There are seven sports in contention for the 2016 short list, which will go to the full IOC membership for an October vote.  The others are golf, rugby sevens, baseball, squash, roller sports and karate.
The buzz is that golf has an excellent chance, especially given its backing by the likes of Tiger Woods.  But choosing golf and rejecting softball would be another slap in the face at women, since the Olympic Golf Committee also includes the Augusta National Golf Club and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, both of which do not allow women as members.

Talk about textbook examples of discrimination.

-- Philip Hersh

(Photos above: Left, Lindsey Van chews on her gold medal from the World Nordic Ski Championships.  Right, Anita deFrantz at an IOC meeting.  Associated Press photos by Jens Meyer and Herbert Knosowski)