A chance meeting in an April 2004 real estate class began the partnership that helped create a new Olympic sport -- women’s ski jumping -- and solve a gender-equality issue for the Winter Games.
Ski jumper Lindsey Van pleaded her case during a coffee break in that class to Deedee Corradini, who as the former mayor of Salt Lake City had hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. Together, the two women led a decade-long campaign that will culminate with the sport’s debut at the Sochi Games Feb. 7-23.
Part of the campaign was funded by $25-a-person charity dinners and ski jumpers soliciting donations at farmers markets. Even now, in a sport that can cost participants $85,000 to $100,000 a year, ski manufacturers say there’s no profit to be made in such a specialized and obscure event -- even if it gets a huge boost from its Olympic moment.
“We’ve been seat-of-the-pants for years,” Corradini said in an interview in Park City, Utah. “It’s been such a struggle for so many years to raise the money.”
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U.S. ski jumper Jessica Jerome, 26, got money from her parents and did waitress shifts while training. Van collected $20,000 on a fundraising website. Corradini has taken no salary in eight years as president of Women’s Ski Jumping USA.
Money was needed not just for training, travel, equipment and hiring coaches. It also went to legal costs and the public campaign to convince international sports officials to include women’s ski jumping in the Olympics.
Men’s ski jumping was one of nine sports at the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France, in 1924. For 90 years, women were excluded from ski jumping based in part on the belief -- as Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation said in 2005 -- that “it seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
After repeatedly being turned down, women’s ski jumping finally was added in April 2011 to the program for the Olympic Games in the Russian seaport.
“It’s great that we’re here now, but most of my career was not that emotionally satisfying,” Van, 29, the 2009 world champion and a 16-time U.S. champion, said in an interview. “It’s still kind of uncomfortable. You’re on the fringe of a sport, you have to tiptoe around. I feel like sometimes people don’t want you there, even now, because it’s a male-dominated sport and I’m a female doing it.”
With the addition of women’s ski jumping, the Nordic combined events -- which include ski jumping and cross-country racing components -- are the sole men-only Olympic sports remaining. The last male-only Summer Olympic sport, boxing, had women’s bouts beginning at the 2012 London Games.
Visa Inc. (V:US) and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association have been long-term supporters of the American women ski jumping team, which added sponsors such as Nike Inc. (NKE:US) in the runup to the Olympics. Members of the team have deals with ski makers that include free equipment and bonuses for good performances.
Van’s experience is very different than that of another American skier with a similar name. Lindsey Vonn, a four-time World Cup overall champion in Alpine skiing events, is the top-earning U.S. skier in history. Her sponsorship deals with companies including Procter & Gamble Co. (PG:US), Under Armour Inc. (UA:US), Red Bull GmbH and Rolex Group are worth about $2.5 million annually, according to Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at San Francisco’s Baker Street Advertising.
Jerome gets her skis from Ried im Innkreis, Austria-based Fischer Sports GmbH. Van’s skis are supplied by Fluege.de, which is based in Munich. Both companies lose money on jumping skis, and don’t expect that to change even if more women start jumping after watching the sport at the Olympics.
“To sell ski-jumping skis is not the real business,” Tanja Winterhalder, the head of marketing for Fischer’s Nordic skiing division, said in an e-mail interview. “Nobody sells jumping skis to earn money -– selling jumping skis is more to have a good field for advertising for your brand.”
Pierre Heinrich, Fluege.de’s skijump race manager, said in an e-mail interview that “there is no market, because jumping skis is an elite sport. One pair of jumping skis cost 600 Euros ($814) to produce. If you want some margin, you need to sell them for 1,800 Euros. This is impossible.”
Getting a sportswear sponsorship is also difficult, said Jerome, one of 10 U.S. Olympians from various sports to receive financial support from Liberty Mutual Insurance leading up to the 2014 Games.
“It’s hard, because ski jumpers wear these weird suits that are built in random basements across Europe,” she said in an interview at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s media summit in Park City. “It’s not like we have a clothing company we wear when we compete. So it’s very unique in that sense.”
Jerome and Van insist their sport is less dangerous than downhill skiing, and as safe for women as men. Van, who has had six operations, a ruptured spleen and six broken vertebrae in her back, said she’s much more nervous about driving in the snow than sailing farther than 100 meters (109 yards, longer than a National Football League field) off a ski jump.
“It’s like putting your hand out the car window at 60 miles per hour, but it’s your whole body,” said Van, whose first jump was over a hay bale as a 7-year-old. “It’s the closest thing to flying.”
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