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B.C. court rejects ski jump bid Add to ...

For 10 years, beginning from her first leap off a hill at the impossibly young age of eight, ski jumper Katie Willis has dreamed of being an Olympic athlete. Not any more.

The heartfelt hopes of Ms. Willis and a dozen other women ski jumpers to compete at next year's Winter Olympics came to an almost-certain end Friday when a B.C. Supreme Court judge dismissed their high-profile bid in a lawsuit to be part of the Games, a right that male ski jumpers have had since 1924.

When the news came across her home computer screen, Ms. Willis, 18, was devastated. She dissolved in tears.

"All that hard work, all that passion for the sport that's been part of me for 10 years, just flashed before my eyes," the slight Calgary teenager said. "It's been my whole life. It was everything, really, the chance to represent my country in 2010."

Madam Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon ruled that the women ski jumpers were indeed discriminated against by the International Olympic Committee's decision to keep them off the 2010 Olympic calendar, but added that the Switzerland-based IOC was beyond the reach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC), which was the target of the ski jumpers' lawsuit, is duty-bound - despite the Charter - to abide by IOC decisions, Judge Fenlon concluded, a situation she confessed was "somewhat distasteful."

In a statement released from Switzerland, the IOC disputed the judge's conclusion that the powerful world sports body was guilty of discrimination. "We strongly disagree with the court's analysis. … Our decision [not to include women ski jumping at the Games]was based on technical issues, without regard to gender."

Yet Ms. Willis, a member of the national women's ski jump team, took little solace from the moral victory implicit in the judge's finding of discrimination. She intends to continue jumping until the end of the month, and then she's through. The thrill is gone.

"I'm done. It's terrible, the politics of sport. It takes away so much of the joy. We've been let down every step of the way," Ms. Willis said. She intends to begin engineering studies this fall at McGill University in Montreal.

Her heartbreak was shared by others involved in the landmark lawsuit, which evoked widespread support and sympathy for the women ski jumpers' cause. Celebrated Olympic gold medal skier Senator Nancy Greene Raine and Oscar-nominated actor Virginia Madsen are among many who have rallied to the women in their quest to take part in the 2010 Winter Games.

"We're all really, really sad," said 16-year-old Meaghan Reid, a member of Alberta's ski jumping team. "We'd been working on this case for a long time, so there were quite a few tears when we heard the result."

She said she was shocked that the court did not overturn a clear case of gender discrimination. "This is Canada. I've grown up here all my life, and nothing has ever stopped me because I was a girl. We were very hopeful."

Ski jumping is the only Winter Olympic sport restricted to men. The 2010 Games schedule includes three events for male ski jumpers and none for women. The IOC rejected the women's bid to be included three years ago, claiming there were not enough countries and top-flight women competitors involved in the sport.

But Judge Fenlon noted that male ski jumpers do not meet IOC criteria, either. She said they were "grandfathered" to remain part of the Winter Olympics when the IOC introduced new rules for sports to qualify for the Olympics.

"Men can participate … even though they do not meet the current standard for inclusion. Women cannot," she said. "In my view, the exclusion of women's ski jumping from the 2010 Games is discriminatory."

Judge Fenlon also upheld the ski jumpers' contention that VANOC is covered by the Canadian Charter, an argument that VANOC lawyers vigorously contested. In the end, however, she agreed that only the IOC has the power to determine Olympic events, and the IOC is outside the Charter's jurisdiction.

University of British Columbia law professor Margot Young said the implication of the judge's decision is worrisome. "It must be a hard thing for these women to accept that huge public resources are being spent on an event that discriminates against them. As citizens, we should be upset about that," Ms. Young said.

Meanwhile, VANOC's relief at not having to organize a late addition to its tightly scripted schedule of Olympic events was tempered by the emotions of the controversy and the feelings of the young women ski jumpers, according to chief executive officer John Furlong. There will be no popping of champagne corks, he said

"We are men and women of sport. Nobody likes to be in a position where they are arguing against that [having an event included in the Olympics] These are young, inspired athletes." Mr. Furlong added that their struggle to be part of the 2010 Games will help ensure women ski jumpers can compete at the next Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

"Many of these women will go on and be part of the Olympic Games. I'm sure of that."

Ross Clark, lawyer for the women ski jumpers, did not rule out an appeal, although some of the younger ski jumpers indicated a desire to move on and press for inclusion in the 2014 Games.

"We will have to study the ruling," Mr. Clark said. "In the meantime, I would like to see the IOC revisit the whole issue, now that our courts have found that their decision on the women ski jumpers is simply wrong."

But the IOC statement indicated there would be no reconsideration of its position. "We are pleased that the Games can now proceed as planned."

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