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Sexism, not skill, keeping women out of Olympic boxing, ski jumping: experts

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VANCOUVER, B.C. - Women can't compete in strenuous sports because their uteruses will fall out. They'll grow moustaches. They won't be able to have children.

Long before female ski jumpers went to court hoping to force Vancouver Olympic organizers to let them compete in the 2010 Games, there was a lengthy history of women sitting on Olympic sidelines.

International Olympic officials argue women can't compete in ski jumping or boxing at the Games because their skills aren't ready for the big leagues, but throughout sport history there's a long list of reasons women have been left out.

"That was long the explanation for preventing girls and women from physical activity - the assumption that it would interfere with their ability to bear children," says Ann Travers, a sociology professor at Simon Fraser University.

"Nobody ever considers the danger to men's reproductive capabilities."

Women first began competing in the modern Olympics in 1900 in the sports of tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf.

Through the long march into the stadium, women have fought for inclusion in the Games, going so far as to stage parallel Women's Olympics in the 1920s and 1930s.

When some women collapsed during the 800-metre track event at the 1928 Olympics, it was considered proof that it was too much for them to handle and the event was cancelled. It didn't reappear on the program for another 32 years.

The women's ski jumping lawsuit against the 2010 Olympic organizing committee isn't the first legal attempt made to gain inclusion.

Before the 1984 Olympics, a lawsuit was filed in U.S. court, arguing that barring women from competing in 5,000-metre and 10,000-metre track events was discriminatory.

The case was decided in favour of the Olympic establishment. The judge found there was not enough proof the International Olympic Committee's rules discriminated against women.

Granted, today's Games have come a long way from the ancient Olympiad, where women were given as prizes for the victor of the chariot race.

Only two of the 192 nations who competed at the Summer Games in Beijing didn't send female athletes - Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

About 40 per cent of current Olympic athletes are women, thanks in part to a 1991 IOC rule which requires all new sports introduced into the Games to have events for both sexes.

But that hasn't helped the women boxers or ski jumpers - both sports were on the program prior to the new rule, so it doesn't apply.

Women in both sports say they've been pushed aside in part because of entrenched sexism that taints the decisions made by the IOC.

A Canadian member of the IOC, Richard Pound, has said that the women's ski jumping court case would backfire on the athletes, potentially barring them from competing in the 2014 Games in Sochi.

Retired jumper Zoya Lynch said that's simply because of the old-world mentality that prevails on the IOC.

"It's kind of like just sit and look pretty and don't speak your mind," said Lynch.

"We're speaking our mind and we're just trying to change the way that women's sports are in 2010."

But the politics around the inclusion of any sport, including women's events are real, observers say.

When Olympic experts, academics and athletes were asked whether the women's ski jumping case could influence the upcoming decision on the boxers, the response was always the same: Nobody tells the IOC what to do.

In the case of boxing, there's a cultural issue at play, suggested Travers.

"There's this reluctance to see women pounding each other in the face and head," she said.

The sport is still regarded as a curiosity among some people, acknowledged Christy Halbert, who sits on the women's commission of the International Boxing Association.

But that shouldn't matter in inclusion at the Olympics, she said. They've now met all of the criteria the IOC set when it turned them down from participating in the Beijing Games back in 2005.

"To me, the biggest victory would be if we didn't have to have women's commissions, we didn't have to have women's task forces," she said.

"If women were integrated into the sport and people who value female athletes were fully-integrated into all of these sports, these would be moot issues. We need to treat athletes like athletes."

The rules for women and men's boxing aren't equal: men compete in three, three-minute rounds, while women compete in four two-minute rounds.

In contrast, both male and female ski jumpers compete in identical conditions.

Lindsey Van, the first world champion female ski jumper, currently holds the record for the longest jump off the ski jump at Whistler, B.C., which will host the men's event in 2010.

Not just the women's record - the record for jumpers male and female.

"My absolute fantasy for this situation would be that the women's ski jumpers competed with the men and you would see an overlap in performance," said Travers.

Van completely disagrees.

"Women and men compete differently in every other sport, they do not ever compete together," she said.

"We shouldn't have to do that here either."

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