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SOCHI, Russia — When 30 women take flight Tuesday in the Winter Olympic debut of women’s ski jumping, some will say they have already won just by having the chance to vie for a medal.
“We are writing history,” 17-year-old French jumper Lea Lemare said. “It is an honor.”
Sochi may be the beginning of Lemare’s Olympic future, but it also marks the end of a nay-saying pattern by the International Ski Federation and the International Olympic Committee and an emotional teeter-totter that enervated the sport’s advocates and its athletes for nearly a decade.
One woman who has seen a large chunk of the process and was a force behind getting women’s jumping into the games is Deedee Corradini, a former Salt Lake City mayor and the president of Women’s Ski Jumping USA, a nonprofit organization established in 2003 to help fund female jumpers.
“Deedee was huge,” said WSJUSA founder Peter Jerome, whose daughter Jessica Jerome was the first ski jumper to earn a berth on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. “She brought the whole political and administrative skill set. Without her, (the effort) wouldn’t have been as effective as it was.”
“When Deedee came on board,” he continued, “we became a political action committee in addition to a funding source.”
This weekend, in an interview with Al Jazeera America at the Olympic Park in Sochi, Corradini — a 5-foot-4 dynamo in running shoes, jeans and a USA jacket — suggested there were philosophical and perhaps competitive clashes compounding the often glacial pace of diplomatic and legal efforts.
“The speculation is that ski jumping is a major, huge sport in Europe. The men jumpers are rock stars. There’s a lot of money involved. And in ski jumping, the smaller and lighter you are, the further you fly,” Corradini said. “So maybe the men’s ski jumpers didn’t want women to ski jump.”
Instead of uniting forces, she said, “we did not get support, in general, from male ski jumpers through this whole process. It wouldn’t have mattered with the IOC, I don’t think, but it was disappointing to us.”
Meanwhile, some of the official reasons given for exclusion were that women’s jumping wasn’t widespread enough and that there was no world championship. But Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation (FIS), the organization that confers world championship status, told NPR in 2005 that the impact of landing about a thousand jumps a year “seems not to be appropriate for ladies, from a medical point of view.”
The media latched onto Kasper’s retrograde claim, and Corradini, who had been a press secretary in the U.S. House of Representatives, knew the media would be a key component for change.
So, too, would be lobbying — literally. In an effort to secure at least a world championship event, Corradini, Peter Jerome and two others flew to Portugal for the 2006 FIS Congress, sat in the lobby memorizing photos and names of FIS members and grabbed them as they walked by.
“We started lobbying at 7 in the morning and closed down the bar at 1 in the morning,” she said. “We divvied up the world.” Since Corradini grew up in Lebanon and Syria and could speak Arabic and French, she took Europe and the Middle East.
The lobbying in the lobby worked.
The FIS held the first women’s ski jumping world championship in 2009 — and when American Lindsey Van won, it was doubly gratifying for Corradini because Van was the woman who awoke her to the athletic injustice.
Even though Salt Lake City was awarded the right to host the 2002 Winter Games during her mayoralty, Corradini had no idea women’s jumping wasn’t in the games until she was taking a real estate class in Utah in 2004 and noticed a young woman in a knit cap who kept falling asleep a few rows ahead of her.
It was then-19-year-old Van. Over coffee, Corradini learned Van had been jumping all her life with no hope of competing on the highest stage.
“I was just absolutely astonished,” Corradini said, and the injustice quickly became “a mission and a passion.”
Going to court
Finally, after all diplomatic efforts failed and women’s jumping was denied a place at the 2006 and 2010 Games, it was time to get legal. But Van wanted nothing to do with a court case.
“What about future generations?” Corradini recalled asking Van. “It was time to fight.”
Van relented, and in 2008, along with 14 other jumpers from six countries, the women sued Vancouver’s Olympic organizing committee in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. While the suit proved that the IOC was guilty of gender discrimination, the court stopped short of forcing the IOC and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to add women’s ski jumping in Vancouver.
It wasn’t until April 2011 that the IOC finally said yes to holding one women’s Olympic event in Sochi.
“I think we just wore ’em down,” said Van, now 29.
Of the 15 athletes who joined the lawsuit, three will compete Tuesday: Van, Jessica Jerome and Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria.
But the movement isn’t finished.
The men have three events in Sochi, while the women have one.
For now, however, “it’s awesome,” 19-year-old Julia Clair of France said. “We were too young to be part of the fight (for inclusion), but it’s great that we can take part now.”