On Friday, David Epstein had a thoughtful piece in the Washington Post about the extent to which sex differences matter in sports—and especially in the Olympics, where female athletes have struggled to gain equal attention and recognition from a male sporting establishment that has long been patronizing about and dismissive of women’s athletics. (My Slate colleague Amanda Hess’s response to Epstein’s piece is worth reading, too.) This discussion is especially relevant today, as women’s normal hill ski jumping makes its long-awaited debut as an official Olympic event. Hey, it only took 90 years!
Though men’s ski jumping has been an Olympic sport since the first Winter Games in 1924, women have been excluded from participation until now for various reasons: The sport was thought to be too dangerous for women, there weren’t enough female ski jumpers (perhaps because it wasn’t in the Olympics), and the IOC just couldn't be bothered to add it. Like all female athletes, female ski jumpers have also had to overcome more blatant sexism, as most recently expressed by Alexander Arefyev, the Russian ski jumping coach who recently told a newspaper that women were much better suited “to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.”
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. As Epstein noted in his Post article, female ski jumpers “can be endowed to fly as far as men, or in some cases farther. Ahead of the 2010 Winter Games, American Lindsey Van held the overall record for longest jump at the Vancouver Olympics site.” In a November New York Times Magazine story about U.S. women's ski jumping, the team’s then-coach told Mireille Silcoff that “there might not actually be another sport in which, at the superelite level, the differences in male and female capability are so minimal." Why are men and women so close in ski jumping and (comparatively) so far apart in everything else?
In his Post piece, while decrying the sexist attitudes that have hindered female athletes over the years, Epstein noted that physiological factors account for the substantial performance gaps between men and women in most sports. Men “have longer limbs relative to their height, bigger hearts and lungs, less fat, denser bones, more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, heavier skeletons that support more muscle,” writes Epstein. This is why elite male athletes can consistently jump higher and run faster than their female counterparts. And this is unlikely to change.
But ski jumping minimizes men’s natural physical advantages. The ramp and gravity, not the athletes’ muscles, are providing most of the power, so musculoskeletal differences are relatively unimportant. While you’re speeding down the ramp, your top priority is to stay balanced and low. This could actually end up being an advantage for women, who tend to have lower centers of gravity than men.
Female ski jumpers have a natural advantage once they hit the air, too. An airborne ski jumper’s objective is to make his or her body resemble an airfoil—with the skis parallel to the ground and the body leaning forward at an acute angle—thus increasing lift and, ultimately, jump distance. To maximize lift, you have to be light. As Silcoff put it last year in the Times, “Seeing the men lined up at a ski jump chair lift, with the tops of their suits down, can feel like looking at a parade of skeletons.” Not surprisingly, the sport has been plagued by eating disorders.
Women are generally lighter than men—even men who willfully emaciate themselves for Olympic glory—and in a sport where the goal, as Epstein wrote, “is to be an incredibly light projectile in a semi-permeable suit,” that’s a big deal. When it comes to ski jumping, the female body is built to soar.
The American female ski jumpers competing at Sochi have taken pains to reject an overly simplistic boys-vs.-girls narrative. "One of the biggest things we try to do as girl ski jumpers is separate ourselves from the men," Jessica Jerome said during a recent press conference. "We start from a higher gate. We have a little more speed going down the in-run. There are so many variables to take into account. You really can’t compare it."
It's true that it's hard to directly compare men's ski jumping results against female results, not least because, as Jerome mentioned, women start from higher up on the ramp than men, as compensation for their lighter weight. And yet the idea that male ski jumpers hold no significant physiological advantage over women is still worth noting. All other things being equal, might women one day end up exceeding the male jumpers’ performance?
It’s hard to say. Though Lindsey Van did briefly hold the record on the Vancouver ramp, that mark was set before the top male jumpers had ever skied there, and it was broken as soon as the Vancouver Olympics got started.
It’ll be impossible to make such a one-to-one comparison in Sochi, given that female ski jumpers start higher on the ramp than their male counterparts. If men and women were jumping from the same place, the men would certainly soar farther. This isn’t so much for physiological reasons—though men may have a physical advantage when it comes to pushing off at the end of the ramp—as it is that male ski jumpers have been plying their trade on an elite international level for longer than women have, and they certainly benefit from all the added practice, support, and experience. As more women take up ski jumping, the gaps between male and female jumpers will decrease. And maybe, in four years, or eight, or 12, a woman will soar past the men entirely. I hope I’m watching when that happens.