It's been a cold, long winter, and there are days when I lose my enthusiasm for going outside. It helps to watch those women skiers gliding across the finish line in the cross country 10K classical in Sochi. If they can do it, so can I, I tell myself. So, I put on two or three layers of clothes, snap on my cross-country skis and traverse the Stockbridge Golf Club's course pretending I am one of them. I am not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but for a moment I can imagine myself going faster than I actually can.
Imagination is one thing, reality is another. For years, women have been imagining participating in various sports where they excel but have been excluded for reasons that are primarily sexist. This year, women have been allowed to compete in ski jumping for the first time after being told for years that the sport was too dangerous for them, there were not enough women ski jumpers to compete, and as the Russian ski jumping coach told a newspaper, women have another purpose, "to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home."
There are 160 women ski jumpers from 18 nations who compete at elite levels. The luge, an official Olympic sport, has 45 elite women, and skier cross has 30 women. But the International Olympic Committee's executive board reasoned against the proposal for women's ski jumping four years ago in the Vancouver Olympics by claiming there were too few athletes and participating countries in the sport.
As Justin Peters pointed out in an article in Slate, "These excuses and attitudes are particularly dumb given that, out of all the sports in the Sochi Games, ski jumping is probably the one with the smallest performance gaps between men and women."
David Epstein published a story in The Washington Post last week revealing that there were once similar misinformed biases against women runners. "In the interest of protecting female runners from feared consequences such as infertility and premature aging, all women's events longer than 200 meters were eliminated after the 1928 Olympic summer games in Amsterdam."
In a different Slate article, Amanda Hess mentioned, "In 1967, commentators told Kathrine Switzer that her uterus would collapse if she competed in the Boston Marathon (she finished, and it did not). Still, women didn't gain clearance to compete in all the track events available to men at the Olympics until 2008."
Jessica Jerome, an American ski jumper who placed 10th in the competition this year, got to the heart of the matter. After the competition, she told a newscaster, "Girls are much more capable than people give them credit for, a lot of the time. And I think that we've shown that tonight. We've shown we belong here, and we put on a great show."
There are still too many people like the Russian coach who do not give girls credit, who think women should be tending the hearth and having babies.
Despite Title IX, the law passed in 1972 that requires gender equality in every educational program that receives federal funding, sports are still designated as masculine or feminine, and while we are not being told anymore that our reproductive organs are in danger if we engage in "masculine" sports, often women are not given adequate support and encouragement to participate in them. Hess points out, "... as teenage girls develop differently from their male peers' and begin to confront gendered expectations for how they ought to use their bodies -- they drop out of sports at a rate that is six times higher than that of boys."
Equality in sports for women isn't about competing with boys or simply leveling the playing field, it is about allowing girls onto the playing field to begin with -- or the snow jump ramp, or the track.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.