The battle to have women's ski jumping recognized as an Olympic event is widely regarded as a great victory for women. For years, the male sports establishment shut them out. The ladies simply weren't good or brave or tough enough, they said. (Some men even argued that ski jumping might injure women's ovaries.) The women insisted that excluding them was plain discrimination. After all, they've broken into judo, boxing, wrestling and hockey. When the International Olympic Committee wouldn't budge, they even went to court and argued their case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The sports establishment eventually gave in. This month in Sochi, the women will get their chance to soar alongside the men.
But there's another, darker side to this inspiring tale – one that isn't discussed much. Female ski racers and jumpers pay a higher price than men because they're hurt more. The most common major injury to elite skiers is ruined knees, and women wreck their knees twice as often as men do. They can expect to spend much of their careers in pain, in surgery and in rehab as teams of surgeons and physiotherapists work to rebuild their blown joints. The mental toughness they need to hurl themselves at full speed down pitched slopes is just the start. They also need the mental toughness to come back quickly from devastating injuries that would disable most people for months or years.
The Achilles heel of female skiers is the anterior cruciate ligament, a ropy band of tissue that runs through the middle of the knee. That sick feeling when you tear your ACL is unforgettable – it makes you want to faint and throw up at the same time, and walking is excruciatingly painful.
Over the past year, eight top female ski jumpers have suffered serious knee injuries. Among them was Canadian hopeful Alexandra Pretorius, age 18. She blew out her knee last August. By December, as the Calgary Herald reported, she was back on the slopes: "3 months post surgery and I'm sliding the landing hill!" she tweeted. "Thanks to my physios and everyone who helped me get here!"
"We see a lot of shooting stars come in young, and I'm always the one to say, 'Let's wait until after the injury,' " Hugues Ansermoz, the coach of Canada's women's Alpine team, told The New York Times. "I know it sounds bad, but that's the way it is. There have been a few people that disappear after injury; they can never come back. And this is not good, but it's part of the game. The champions, the real champions, they all come back stronger."
Dr. Robert Johnson, at the University of Vermont, is an expert on ACL injuries. He sees this macho approach all the time. But there's a price to pay for toughness at all costs. "What about that person when she's 35 years old, and has osteoarthritis, and she's hobbling around because her knees are gone?"
Injuries are an inevitable fact of life for all elite athletes. But skiing isn't the only sport that puts women at a disadvantage. Women who play basketball, soccer, and other cut-turn-jump-stop-start sports are five to six times more vulnerable to knee injuries than men. Why? Because they're women.
"Women's tibia are shaped differently," Dr. Johnson says. "Their ACLs are smaller. Their neuromuscular firing patterns are different, their hormonal situations are totally different." Even with the best training in the world, the fundamental physiological differences that make women more injury-prone are unchangeable.
As more girls and young women flood into athletics, knee injuries have become an epidemic. But people – especially coaches – don't want to talk about it. And parents often have no idea of the risk until their own daughter winds up on crutches. After all, girls are equal. Aren't they?
There's no doubt that girls are equal in competitive spirit and mental toughness. What's not equal is their bodies. "My daughters could have done anything they wanted," Dr. Johnson told me. "But I was not unhappy when they elected not to do ski racing."
Women who ski jump are also prone to anorexia. That's because the lighter they are, the farther they go. American superstar Sarah Hendrickson, 19 (whom Alexandra Pretorius names as her idol) weighs just 94 lbs. She has confessed that she has trouble eating sometimes. She's in crash-course rehab after a serious knee injury, hoping to be well enough to compete at Sochi.
Among the most heroic warriors of them all is Canadian freestyle skier Kaya Turski, who was the gold-medal favourite at Sochi until she ripped her ACL for the third time last August. A normal surgery and recovery time would have meant she'd miss the Olympics. Besides, as she told USA Today, "I didn't have any hamstring left to give." So the Canadian team's surgeon, Dr. Bob Litchfield, tried a novel procedure. He gave her a synthetic ACL, inside one from a cadaver. The synthetic ACL will get her back in action fast, although eventually it will stop working.
The fix seems to be working – Ms. Turski is back on the slopes, and last week she even won a gold medal at Aspen. But Dr. Johnson is dubious about the merits of short-term heroic surgery. "A synthetic device is almost always going to fail – and then what do you do?" he says. If Ms. Turski wins the gold at Sochi she should probably split it with her surgeon.
I'm not about to argue that women shouldn't have the right to take any risks they want, or even maim themselves, in the name of sport. After all, men have been doing it forever, and we admire them for it. But I cannot think we should encourage our daughters to emulate the heroics of the female ski-jump team, no matter how big a victory they symbolize for women's rights. Their courage is admirable. But I wouldn't recommend them as role models without a good hard think. We need to be more honest with ourselves – and our daughters – about the limitations of the female body. Of course the girls can jump – there's no doubt of that. Whether they should jump is another matter.