Long distance ski jumpers benefit from maximizing their surface area while simultaneously decreasing their weight. The less they weigh and the more drag they can produce, the farther they go.
Their bodies are the primary source of weight and, as a result, there is incredible pressure for competing ski jumpers to be as thin as possible. After criticism that the sport was creating an incentive for disordered eating (source), the International Ski Federation began penalizing jumpers who had a body mass index below 20. These skiers were required to jump with shorter skis, the primary source of drag. The hope was that the shorter skis would balance out the incentive for thinness, allowing jumpers to be competitive without starving themselves (source).
So, who wins at this year’s Olympics won’t only be related to talent and practice. It will also be a consequence of rules that no longer make the ability to train while starving oneself an advantage. I’m not saying that this is good or bad, only that this is a great example of the way that we write rules that shape the context for success in a sport.
In light of this, it’s really interesting to consider the fact that there is still not a woman’s ski jumping competition at the Olympics. In fact, ski jumping is the only sport at the Olympics that does not allow women to compete (source). The International Olympics Committee and the International Ski Federation list a myriad of reasons for this, ranging from claims that the sport is not yet developed enough, to the idea that adding women would crowd an already overwhelmed Olympic schedule, to the assertion that the sport is not “…appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
The rationales seem transparently thin, leading to the suggestion that the real reason that women aren’t allowed to compete is because they might kick ass. If being lighter is an advantage, then women might beat men at the sport. In fact, the world record holder on the ski jump track at this year’s Olympics is held by a woman: Lindsey Van.
Sociologists recognize sport as a terrain on which social claims about gender are demonstrated. Not letting women play is one way that the mythology of men’s physical dominance has been maintained. Football is an excellent example. Women aren’t allowed to play football, it is asserted, because they are not big enough and would get hurt. Of course, rules that make size so critical to success in football also exclude the majority of men (who aren’t big enough to play either). If we organized football by weight classes, instead of gender, women could play football, and so could all of the men who are excluded as well. But, if we organized football by weight classes, we couldn’t claim that women were too small, weak, and fragile to play it.
I suspect something very much like this is going on with ski jumping.
In any case, the two controversies over ski jumping this season are great examples of the ways that sports are socially organized.