Monday, March 8, 2010

On ski jumping, gender equality and heavy wind

Norway is a country that prides itself with the title “World Champion in gender equality”. This is not just a self-awarded title, but one adopted after a 2008 World Economic Forum report. There is no doubt that women in Norway have a far better position than many of their sisters elsewhere. Historically, there are many milestones in the battle for equal rights that Norway passed a long time before many other countries. Universal suffrage was a reality in 1913. The law for equal rights between the genders was passed in 1978. In 1981 we had our first female prime minister. Today, the amount of men and women with higher education is roughly balanced, as is the amount of men and women in paid employment.

Personally, I’ve never been fighting on the barricades for gender equality or the feminist movement. The reason I haven’t had to do so is because the work put down in the generations before mine has led to a society where there are close to equal rights between men and women.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still miles to go, for instance when it comes to reducing the difference between men and women’s paychecks. While in principle no one is paid less simply because they are female in Norway today, there is still a tendency that professions that are predominantly male have higher wages than those that are predominantly female. However, because we have reached a point where in most cases the differences between men and women are reduced to the choices we make – and everyone is entitled to choose whatever they want – I don’t see gender equality as the main issue in Norway today.

Every now and then, however, there are situations where I feel the red stockings practically growing up my legs. One of these situations has been a prominent news story in Norway the last few weeks.

Another thing about Norway is our interest in winter sports. Ski jumping is a grand old sport that used to be a major attraction. Boys and girls in the 1950s would know the name of every ski jumper there was. They had their own miniature ski jumpers that actually could jump down a miniature hill. Ski jumping even had a linguistic influence – “Jumping after Wirkola” is a common expression in Norway today, describing “the difficulties associated with embarking on a task where one's immediate predecessor has accomplished an unusually good job” (thank you once again, Wikipedia). Bjørn Wirkola, famed Norwegian ski jumper, is the origin of this expression, but in modern use you’ll find it in everything from political speeches to tabloid papers.

Holmenkollsøndag – the Sunday in Holmenkollen – is another expression that sticks even today. It’s my impression that in “the olden days” (when my dad was young – which I wouldn’t have had the guts to call “the olden days” had I not been 100% sure he does not read my blog), everyone was going to Holmenkollen when there was a ski jump competition. Holmenkollen is one of Oslo’s biggest tourist attractions even today. It’s an old ski jump – or rather, it used to be. And with this we are closing in on the core of today’s blog post (yes, I do know where I am going with this – I am not just providing you with random factoids about Norway).

The thing is, the old Holmenkollen was not big enough for modern ski jump standards. Oslo is hosting the 2011 FIS Nordic World Ski Championship, and the ultimatum was clear: either the old Holmenkollen is upgraded, or a new ski jump will have to be built. To make an already long story a little shorter; after a lot of controversies, it was decided to tear down the old Holmenkollen, and rebuild it on the same location.

As it is the second oldest ski jump still in use, with a tower from 1939, there were many complaints about tearing it down. When I went to visit relatives in Minnesota, and told them about the old ski jump being torn down, my cousin Darlene nearly choked in surprise: “But they NEVER tear anything old down there! That’s what we do here!” Well, she was wrong. We do occasionally tear things down. Fortunately.

The new ski jump is just finished, and though I have only seen it from afar (it overlooks the entire city), it looks quite good. To celebrate the opening of the new ski jump an official ceremony was held last week.

As if we hadn’t had enough hullabaloo over the ski jump, another issue was raised: Who would be given the honour of jumping first in the new hill?

(We’re getting even closer to the core now, I swear.)

While ski jumping is a grand, old sport, it is almost exclusively a male sport. And there are strong forces trying to keep it that way.

There are no relevant reasons why women should not be allowed to participate in ski jumping. Arguments such as “they could hurt themselves” have long since been reduced to ridicule as sexism. And yet, for years female ski jumpers have been unsuccessful in their fight to be allowed to participate in international competitions such as the Olympics and the World Championship. The fact that women are excluded from ski jumping brings to mind attitudes that belonged in the Ancient Greek Olympic Games. It is not just a Norwegian problem – no female ski jumpers are allowed. You may not know any, but chances are that if your country has snow, it also has at least one disgruntled female ski jumper who is the victim of discrimination because she is not male.

In Norway, this discrimination has gotten a lot of attention the last few years. It is probably helping that one of the world’s top female ski jumpers is Norwegian. Anette Sagen has become the symbol of everything unfair about the male monopoly. She has received considerable support, but unfortunately it takes more than kind words and Facebook groups to change the mind of the stubborn old farts in charge of this (yes, I called them farts. Deal with it).

When the new hill in Holmenkollen (you thought I’d derailed again, didn’t you?) was to be opened, someone suggested that Anette Sagen was to be the first to jump. And, lo and behold, somehow this was decided. Finally, a victory for female ski jumping!

But. Then. The farts hit again.

How petty do you have to be to not accept this decision, but instead actively sabotage it, by sending out a male test jumper before Sagen had the opportunity to jump? And not just any male, either – it could perhaps have been justified as security measures had it been an actual test jumper (it is common prior to ski jumping competitions to let the semi-good jumpers try the hill. I think the logic is that the really good ones should be spared for the actual competition, while it's not such a big deal if the semi-good ones break a leg or two if the conditions are bad). However, the jumper in question was no other than Bjørn Einar Romøren, another one of Norway’s top ski jumpers, and incidentally the primary male candidate for Sagen’s job as the one to jump first in the new Holmenkollen.

There is no doubt that the decision to let Romøren go first was a deliberate attempt to spoil the symbolic value of Sagen’s jump; and sadly, it was successful. Romøren was duly punished, but in reality, he was only a tool for the old farts. What needs to be changed is not just his attitude, but the attitude of the entire ski jump milieu.

In the end, perhaps something positive can come out of this. The fact that a male jumper went first, despite the decision to allow a female one to do so, might be the final drop. Perhaps it can help trigger a demand that female ski jumpers are allowed to participate in championships. I sincerely hope so. Not because I care so much about ski jump (which I don’t, even though I am Norwegian), but because the treatment of the female ski jumpers represents a society I hoped we had given up on a long time ago.

On this day – the International Women’s Day – I’d like to make an appeal. Let’s change something here. Let’s make sure that from now on, the expression doesn’t have to be “jump after Wirkola”. From now on, it might as well be “jump after Sagen”. And especially not, as has been suggested by certain Norwegian commentators, “jump before Sagen”.


It is somewhat ironic that the new Holmenkollen has been said to look like a woman in labour, where the ski jumpers are gliding down her belly and jumping out between her legs [disturbing image, I know]. From afar, however, it only looks like a giant phallus.


Jan Morrison said...

I am so with you on this! The stupid Olympic gods decision on this made me so mad I swore I wouldn't watch the damn things at all. As if they'd care. But let's not give up on this - it just is so ridiculous and tells young girls that they are INFERIOR once again.

Cruella Collett said...

Exactly! I just read a very interesting article yesterday on women and sports in the 1930s, and how they were deliberately excluded because of contemporary ideas of how the female body worked. It's the *exact* same thing going on still - how is that possible in the 21st century? Makes me mad to say the least!

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