Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment
KTH Royal Institute of Technology
It is not every day that a book about ski jumping lands in my mailbox. In fact, it has never happened before. So when I started reading License to Jump! A Story of Women’s Ski Jumping, edited by Marit Stub Nybelius and Annette R. Hofmann, I was not sure what to expect. As it turns out, a great deal.
This edited volume sets out to provide an insight into the 150 year history of women’s ski jumping, and is aimed at a broad readership. It contains seven chapters that examine the history and current development of this sport, and specifically the female participants. I will make a short comment on each chapter and end with a more general discussion.
John B. Allen opens up with an analysis of the construction and development of ski jumping as a sport, from the early days of spontaneous jumps in ordinary ski races to the organized, regulated ski jumps of today. As I read it, the history of ski jumping is one of sportification, with increasing regimentation, specialization, and finally, equalization. Ski jumping organized in different classes with respect to hill size, rigorous point systems for judgement and even regulations on Body Mass Index (BMI) are all examples of historical and ongoing sportification.
What is striking, even compared with other winter sports of Nordic origin, is the lack of female participation at the international level. Women’s ski jumping was included in the Olympic Winter Games for the first time in Sochi 2014, and the first World Championships were held in 2009 (as a comparison, women’s cross-country skiing featured already in Oslo 1952). It seems beyond doubt that ski jumping has been strongly gender coded as a male endeavor, even if occasional literary accounts have portrayed female athletes (e.g. the Austrian writer and ski jumper Bertha Eckstein-Diener, see Pfister 2013). Therefore, it is refreshing to read the second chapter of the book, which tells the fascinating story of female ski jumpers who have defied the norms.
Annette R. Hofmann and Gerd von der Lippe makes it clear that women have in fact ski jumped since at least 1863, and that some of these athletes have become quite famous and even made money out of their sport. Two names stand out: the Austrian Baroness Paula Lamberg (1887-1927) and the Norwegian Johanne Kolstad (1913-1997). Their respective careers were restricted to entertaining events, and they rarely were allowed to compete. Their jumps, and women’s ski jumping in general, were described as “unladylike” and “immoral”, even dangerous from a medical point of view. This follows in a vast (and sad) history of reduction and paternalistic “protection” of female athletes that have been studied in other sports such as cross-country skiing and football (e.g. Tolvhed 2008, 2015; Hjelm 2004; Svensson & Oppenheim 2015; Gori 2008). Despite these limitations, both Lamberg and Kolstad managed to win the respect of many spectators and have an important place in the history if ski jumping.
Chapter three (by Ingrid P. Wicken) deals with the development of ski jumping in the U.S. and Canada 1900-1950, where Nordic immigrants played a vital role in promoting ski jumping. Johanne Kolstad, Ella Gulbrandsen and others jumped in front of big crowds at classic arenas like Madison Square Garden in New York and Wrigley Field in Chicago. However, their jumps were seen as entertainment rather than competitive sports, and after World War II ski jumping in North America was practically dormant.
Chapter four (by Stub Nybelius, Hofmann, Patricia Vertinsky and Shannon Jette) looks into the developments after World War II, and especially how women’s ski jumping went from excluded from international competitions to being part of the Olympic Winter Games and World Championships. The reluctance of FIS to allow women’s ski jumping in their events is made clear, and exemplified by both internal documents and media debates. This is in many ways a sad story, but there are also positive signs, like the introduction of mixed competitions that the authors of the book clearly see a lot of potential in.It can serve as a reminder that equality has never been granted, but always had to be fought for. It can highlight the potential of sports as an arena for recognition of rights.
If FIS was absent from the barricades in the fight for women’s ski jumping, chapter five (Vertinsky, Jette and Hofmann) shows that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were no different. Among many other things, this chapter underlines that it is seldom enough for an organization to adopt new statutes, if there is no real will to follow them in practice. The IOC had spoken out for gender equality several times, yet they continued to exclude women’s ski jumping long into the 21st century with arguments that echoed of 19th century misogynist or paternalist ideas.
Chapter six is a more personal history of women’s ski jumping, through the eyes of Marit Stub Nybelius, who apart from being a researcher is also an international judge for ski jumping. Through the cases of Sweden, Norway, Italy and Austria, Nybelius nuances the history of the sport since the 1980s. As in any sport that is excluded from the international scene, the shortage of funding seem to be a real problem and has led to difficulties in recruiting new generations of ski jumpers.
Despite the problems, Stub Nybelius ends on a more optimistic tone in her final chapter. After decades of hard times, the last years have meant a lot of positive change for women’s ski jumping. Stub Nybelius believes that there is untapped potential in the sport, pointing especially to the introduction of mixed competitions. She argues that because women’s sport often is less developed than male, there is more potential for increased media coverage, finances, etcetera. Basically, there’s more room for sportification. I agree with these conclusions, but I also think that sportification is not always and only a good thing. What may be lost if women’s ski jumping develops into a more commercial, specialized endeavor? Such a discussion would have been interesting.
It would also have been fruitful with further attention to the processes of male gendered identity construction within ski jumping as a sport. Why are some sports still so controversial for women to participate in? What strategies have been used by female ski jumpers to counter exclusion from the international scene (challenging of such gender boundaries in sport have been studied recently, see Barker-Ruchti et al. 2015)? And, since the history of this sport in many ways follow the sportification scheme, a comparison with other sports where women have been excluded could have put this case into a wider context.
That said, the commitment and knowledge of the authors certainly comes across to the reader. The history of those who took the first steps, who first challenged the restrictive norms of a sport, is important. It can serve as a reminder that equality has never been granted, but always had to be fought for. It can highlight the potential of sports as an arena for recognition of rights (Andersen & Loland 2016). It can also inspire future generations to pursue a career (or just for pure fun) in whichever sport they find most enjoyable, regardless of gender norms. Finally, a book like this gives recognition to the pioneers of sport – Kolstad, Lamberg and others who in their time were not allowed to compete internationally but who built a foundation that made possible the developments we see today (a point raised also in Ingrid P. Wicken’s chapter). Ski jumping is part of our cultural heritage, and with this edited volume we now have a better understanding of how that heritage has been constructed over the years.
With the inclusion of women’s ski jumping in Sochi 2014, one of the last male-only bastions in sport fell. In the aftermath to that event, License to jump is not only a history of ski jumping but also a call for more women to participate. The hill is there for the taking. So, in the words of Van Halen: jump!
Copyright © Daniel Svensson 2016