SOCHI, Russia — Jessica Jerome was torn. Every year, she saw more and more extreme sports become mainstream — aerials, freestyle, halfpipe, and snowboard cross, to name a few — only to see her own sport so brusquely cast aside as unwelcome, unnecessary, unworthy.
Jerome was happy for her fellow athletes who got a chance to compete in the Olympics. But at the same time, as a ski jumper, she was angry. After all, what’s more extreme than hurtling down a 300-foot hill at about 60 mph, then soaring more than the length of a football field in the air on a pair of skis?
“But it’s a good thing,” Jerome quickly added. “I sort of see our fight getting our foot in the door for all the other sports. The athletes in these other sports deserve to be here as much as we do. And I’m glad that they didn’t have the struggle we did.”
And it has been a long and difficult struggle for women’s ski jumping, which finally makes its debut in Sochi on Tuesday after a decade of fighting in the face of typical bureaucratic inertia, casual sexism and primitive concerns about women’s reproductive health.
Jerome, along with fellow Americans Lindsey Van (one of the sport’s modern pioneers) and Sarah Hendrickson (a rising star jumping less than six months after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and 80 percent of her meniscus), took to the hill Saturday for their first training session of the Games, a landmark moment that’s been nine decades in the making — since the first Winter Games in 1924, when men’s ski jumping debuted.
“I’m definitely focused on being an athlete; it’s hard for me to look at the big picture,” said Van, 29. “It’s humbling, and it’s a lot to take in.”
Sochi organizers claim that the first women’s ski jumper took off in 1862, but the path to the Olympics really began in 2003, in Jerome’s house in Park City, Utah. Once she finally persuaded her parents, Peter and Barbara, to let her jump — “My mom said no, and my dad had a vision of the ‘agony of defeat’ from the Wide World of Sports,” Jerome said — they became her and the sport’s biggest boosters.
The story, now familiar in Olympic circles, had Barbara complaining about the lack of opportunities for female jumpers and pushing Peter out the door. He bought a Non-profits for Dummies book, and his little start-up — Women’s Ski Jumping USA — eventually built the world’s top team.
It didn’t happen overnight. Archaic notions of gender inequality — International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper infamously said in 2005 that it “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view” — were difficult to overcome.
In 2006, women’s ski jumping was voted down by the IOC because of a lack of “universality,” despite having nearly three times as many elite-level competitors as female skier cross, which debuted in Vancouver. Van and Jerome were part of a group of jumpers that sued for inclusion in the 2010 Games but lost.
Finally, in April 2011, the IOC added women’s ski jumping to the Sochi Games.
While the men get three events, including the large (120 meters) hill, the women get one, on the normal (90 meters) hill. True gender equality will have to wait until at least 2018 in South Korea.
“I’m hoping that this is the first step, and that [equality] will come eventually,” Jerome said. “With any new sport, you’re sort of taking baby steps. I really appreciate that we are here and we have our one event. And I really hope in the future we will have a big hill event and a team event.”
So it’s the end of one long chapter in the sport’s history, and the start of a new one, as it leaps forward into the future.
“We’ve waited a long time to be here, and I can’t wait to show everybody our sport,” Van said. “It’s one of the oldest sports in the Olympics, and it’s taken 90 years for women to be here. So check us out.”