As a kid in Norway, I remember watching international cross-country skiing and speed skating competitions and noticing that the female athletes were skating and skiing shorter distances. Women didn’t compete in the ski jump at all.
You’d think this differential would have gone away by the year 2014, but it hasn’t. At the Winter Olympics this year in Sochi, the big closing event, as usual, will be the men’s 50km (30 mile) cross-country ski race. The women’s longest race will be 30km (18 miles). At the long track speed skating oval, the men’s middle distance race is 5km — the women’s is 3 — and the men’s long distance race is a grueling 10km, while the women skate 5km.
Women will be competing in ski jumping at the Winter Olympics this year for the first time. But they will only jump in the “normal” hill. Not the “large” hill. The boys compete in both.
There are other examples: women only compete in “two-man” bobsleds, men compete in two- and four-man sleds. In luge, men can compete in singles and doubles (and now the mixed relay), women don’t compete in a doubles event. In biathlon, women ski shorter distances…
Is there a physiological reason: are women just not up to skiing and skating the long distances? Shawn Ladda (Professor in the department of Kinesiology at Manhattan College and Former President of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports) says that’s not the problem. It’s just a lingering vestige of the male domination of the sports world. And, for some reason, winter sports in particular are taking a long time to catch up.
The ancient Olympic Games were part of a religious festival in the honor of the Greek god Zeus. It was a men-only affair. Married women weren’t even allowed to watch. Unmarried women could watch, but they couldn’t participate (they had their own competition in honor of Hera, Zeus’ wife).
When the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens, women were again left out of the competition. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, said their participation would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.” But in 1900, 11 women competed in lawn tennis and golf.
For the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France in 1924, 11 women competed — all of them in figure skating — and 247 men. In Vancouver in 2010 there were 1,522 male athletes and 1,044 female.
Over the years, women’s events have slowly been added to different Winter Olympics sports. And as new sports have been added to the games, women have sometimes been included along with men or have been included at a later date.
At the Sochi games, there is only one sport left in which women do not compete at all: Nordic Combined, one of the original winter games events. Nordic combined is the competition in which athletes have to ski jump and then cross-country ski. Since women now compete in both of those individual events, maybe the writing is on the wall for this last male-only hold-out.