A historic Olympic competition will open Monday when 15 female ski jumpers from Canada, Austria, Norway, Slovenia and the U.S. take on the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Winter Games, arguing they have a constitutional right under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms to compete next February. Ski jumping is the only Olympic sport that bars women from participating.
The biggest event these women have had to endure is the blame game: VANOC says it's the International Olympic Committee that's discriminating, the IOC says it's the Fédération Internationale de Ski, the FSI says it's the IOC - round and round they go in an old boys' relay race. At the end of the day, women are still shut out.
My first exposure to this sporting version of equality occurred when I was a bike racer in the 1970s and learned that women cyclists were not allowed to compete at the Olympics. No reason was given - and if we questioned why this was so, we'd be blacklisted. When we were finally allowed to compete in 1984, those who had fought for this right remained on the list, unwelcome on national teams.
At the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, countries were allowed to send as many as 11 men but only three women for the cycling track events - which may have been because there are seven events for men and, despite the 24 years since we gained entry, only three track events for women. Cycling is not alone. While female kayakers were allowed into the Olympics in 1948, there are only three events for them and nine for men. There are still no canoeing events for women at the Games.
While covering the Olympics last summer, I asked IOC member and former Union Cycliste Internationale president Hein Verbruggen why there were so few events for women cyclists. "I don't know," he said. "I guess it's historical."
In 1990, I tried discussing such inequities with IOC members at the International Olympic Academy in Olympia, Greece. For the first time, the academy - founded by the IOC in 1961 - was devoting its session to women at the Olympics. I was one of five women representing Canada and, one day at lunch, one IOC member told me that, in his country, they beat women who spoke out of line. After lunch, another reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. "I am in cabin 22," he said, jingling the keys in my face. Toronto was bidding for the 1996 Games; he must have thought I'd been sent to convince him.
From world championship events in 1966 to just before the Sydney Games in 2000, women athletes had to wear a "femininity card" awarded only after they'd passed a test administered by the IOC. The first tests forced women to walk naked in front of a panel of doctors. Should these "experts" want further proof, they were allowed to do gynecological examinations. At the 1968 Olympics, the tests changed to buccal saliva swaths to determine the presence of only X chromosomes. They had a 20 per cent false positive rate; women athletes were told to feign an injury and go home.
Somehow, the combination of strength and femaleness has not yet computed for the IOC. There must be a biological flaw in women athletes, a tiny penis lurking somewhere. Sandi Kirby, chair of the University of Winnipeg's sociology department and a former Olympic rower, Berit Skirstad, of the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education, and others have lobbied for years to get these tests banned.
The fight for equality in sport is never-ending. Next year, while our women's hockey team tries to regain Olympic gold, other women are still fighting for their right to play.
Three years ago, in Vulcan, Alta., Chelsey Rhodes filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission on behalf of her cousin, Cori Pasolli, when she was prevented from playing on the bantam boys' team she'd made. This nearly 20 years after the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Justine Blainey's right to play when the Ontario Hockey Association barred her from the all-boys team she made. The Vulcan Minor Hockey Association recently agreed that Ms. Pasolli could play - a little late considering that she now attends the University of Lethbridge.
Hockey Alberta is appealing. Someone there must be vying for a seat on the IOC.
Laura Robinson is author of Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality.Report Typo/Error