Women’s ski jumping had been unjustly excluded from the Olympics until it was finally added for the 2014 Sochi games.
The IOC’s official reason for the ban was that the sport didn’t have enough regular, world-class competitions. But the general consensus is that sexism based on outmoded medical beliefs is the real culprit.
The irony of this is that men and women are relatively similar to each other in terms of ski jumping performance. The gender disparity that exists in some other sports doesn’t in exist ski jumping.
Let’s use this season’s World Cup event in Lillehammer as an example.
The men and women both jumped on the same hill on the same day in the same conditions.
The men, on average, were slightly better than women in both the distance metric and the style metric. But the difference is so small as to make the two groups fairly comparable. In addition, several female jumpers outscored the majority of male jumpers.
On average, the top-20 male finishers were only a little bit better than the top-20 female finishers. The men jumped 0.85 meters further, earned 2.35 more style points from the judges, and scored 6.18 more points than their female counterparts overall.
The chart (more below):
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Sara Takanashi, a 17-year-old from Japan who’s the gold medal favourite in Sochi, would have won the silver medal in the men’s competition in Lillehammer on Dec. 7. Her combined score of 286.0 was only 2.5 points behind Gregor Schlierenzauer, who won the event with a score of 288.5.
Here are the top-15 finishers on the day, regardless of gender (women in bold):
- Gregor Schlierenzauer, 288.5 points
- Sara Takanashi, 286.0 points
- Taku Takeuchi, 283.5 points
- Richard Freitag, 280.3 points
- Anders Bardal, 277.1 points
- Maciej Kot, 276.9 points
- Andreas Wellinger, 276.2 points
- Severin Freund, 272.9 points
- Robert Kranjec, 271.3 points
- Rune Velta, 270.8 points
- Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, 270.0 points
- Gianina Ernst, 270,0 points
- Carina Vogt, 269.3 points
- Noriaki Kasai, 268.8 points
- Jacqueline Seifriedsberger, 268.1 points
It’s rare for men and women to compete in World Cup events on the same hill on the same day. So the sample size is far from complete. But based on this one event, men and women are essentially on the same level.
Interesting, the men and women will both compete on the normal hill in Sochi, which should give us another set of data to compare.
So why doesn’t gender matter in ski jumping?
In short, weight is an important factor when it comes to ski jumping. As a general rule, the lighter the jumper, the better.
Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College, summed it up nicely in 2010:
“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.”
A leaf with a sizeable surface area will fall slower than an acorn, for example.
The IOC has actually instituted body mass index minimums to keep athletes from losing a dangerous amount of weight.
Weight isn’t the only thing that matters in ski jumping, though. Or else, the lightest person would win every time.
Wolfam Muller of the University of Graz wrote in a 2005 paper on the sport. In it, he argued that maintaining an aerodrymaic flight position is an art:
“The field study conducted during the Olympic Games competitions 2002 at Park City (elevation: 2000 m) showed an impressive ability of the Olympic medallists to reproduce their flight style and remarkable differences between different athletes have been found. The aerodynamic forces are proportional to the air density. Elite athletes are able to adapt their flight style to thin air conditions in order to maximise jump length and to keep the flight stable.”
In other words, ski jumpers have skills. While all ski jumps look the same to an untrained eye, there’s actually a ton of stuff going on every time an athlete takes off.
Weight matters, but so does technique.
So while weight might be an advantage for some athletes in ski jumping, it means nothing without the skills to parlay that advantage into results.
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