Philip Hersh: Women ski jumpers take foggy leap of faith toward Olympics
The fog in Oslo, Norway was so thick Friday that spectators at the bottom of the windswept ski-jump hill at the World Nordic Ski Championships could see little more than the moment the women athletes skied through the finish area.
Now those athletes can only hope the International Olympic Committee will see what happened under those conditions as clear evidence their event should be in the 2014 Olympics.
IOC member Gian-Franco Kasper of Switzerland, president of the International Ski Federation, said after Friday's event he was "90 percent optimistic'' women's ski jumping would be on the program for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
That decision should be made in late March or early April.
The IOC denied that opportunity to women jumpers at the 2010 Games for reasons that had more to do with the fog of sexism that still pervades the Olympic old boys club than any of the reasons it raised for keeping the women jumpers out.
The IOC said jumping had problems about quality of competition, number of competitors and numbers of nations involved, no matter that sports like women's (and even men's) bobsled and women's luge already were in the Olympics despite some of the same issues.
When women's jumping made its world championship debut two years ago in Liberec, Czech Republic, there were 36 athletes from 13 countries. Friday, there were 43 athletes from 15 countries.
(At the 2011 bobsled worlds, which still are underway, the two-man men's field had 31 sleds from 16 countries; at the luge worlds last month, the women's field had 26 sleds from 13 countries.)
Yes, the gap in Friday's ski jump between first and second -- and from the medalists to fourth -- was bigger than it had been two years ago, which naysayers might use to suggest not enough depth of talent. And the leading jumps were shorter than 2009, even though the Oslo hill is bigger (106 meters) than the one in Liberec (100).
But the weather conditions, which included random wind blasts Friday, were so much worse this time it is impossible to make such comparisons.
Even so, the 30th jumper Friday had a score that would have finished 17th two years ago, which may be the most significant statistic about how the quality has improved.
Another measure of development: None of Friday's three medalists, each from a different country, came from the three countries with medalists two years ago. Daniela Iraschko of Austria won, with Elena Runggaldier of Italy second and Coline Mattel of France third.
Jessica Jerome, sixth in 2009, was the top U.S. finisher Friday, at 14th. Reigning champion Lindsey Van of the U.S. took off with a strong side wind and did not even make the top 30 to qualify for the second round.
"I can't believe they sent me down in that,'' Van said, "but that's the sport.''
There was barely enough visibility for the event to be run Friday. An athlete pushing through the start bar had to make a leap of faith there was a landing area somewhere below.
"I couldn't see anything, and I couldn't hear anything. It was a bizarre feeling, but I had a job to do,'' said U.S. jumper Alissa Johnson, who finished 20th.
Part of that job was to show that neither fog nor wind could keep these indomitable women from their appointed rounds.
The IOC wants you to believe gender equity is part of its creed. That is kind of hard to take on face value when you see an IOC with just one woman among its 15 executive board members, an IOC with just 19 women among its 110 overall members, an IOC willing to allow Olympic participation by several countries that exclude women from their Olympic teams.
To be fair, the IOC has been much better about increasing the number of women athletes in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. About 41% of the athletes at the 2010 Winter Games were women, up from 28% at the previous Canadian Olympics in 1988.
Adding women's ski jumping isn't enough for the IOC to leap across its gender disparity. But it is the kind of good-faith statement Olympic officials must make to show their vision of Olympic ideals is more than just a self-serving mirage.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Japan's Ayumi Watase leaps into the fog Friday at the World Championships in Oslo. She finished seventh. Credit: Odd Andersen / Getty Images