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Ski jumpers must clear big legal hurdle to enter 2010 Olympics, say experts

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VANCOUVER, B.C. - Female ski jumpers suing for a chance to compete at the 2010 Games may have a solid moral argument, but a legal one will be much tougher to prove, Olympic and legal experts say.

The case between fifteen former and current ski jumpers and the Olympic organizing committee, known as VANOC, begins on Monday in B.C. Supreme Court.

The women argue the fact that men are allowed to compete in ski jumping and they aren't violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While on that basis it may seem like a clear-cut case of discrimination, the women must prove that VANOC is subject to the Charter, which requires proving the committee is controlled by the government.

Or, they must argue that putting on the Olympics is carrying out a government function and thus it should be subject to the Charter.

"They are tough arguments to make," said Margot Young, associate professor of the University of British Columbia's school of law.

"It really depends on how skilfully the argument is presented and who sits on the bench."

The women point to the fact the federal, provincial and municipal governments contribute more than $600 million to the operation of the Olympics and appoint half of VANOC's board, among other things.

But previous decisions have ruled money and the presence of government-appointed overseers doesn't mean government control.

For that, the court will look deeper to see how much routine control the government has over the Games, Young said.

In their argument, filed in court last week, Olympic organizers say they don't take instructions from government.

They say there's no evidence board members act in the government's interest opposed to the interest of the Olympics as a whole.

Further, organizers say the decision on what sports will be on the program in 2010 isn't up to them, but rests with the International Olympic Committee which sets all the operating rules for the Games.

VANOC argues it's merely carrying out the rules of a contract that it agreed to when Vancouver won the bid in 2002.

Sports lawyer Michael Penman called VANOC the "monkey in the middle."

"They are between a rock and a hard place because they've got to keep good relations with the IOC but at the same time, recognize that public opinion in Canada and even the legislation may be against the position they are forced to take," he said.

If the women's case is successful, it could have an impact on other contentious rules set by the IOC.

For example, someone could argue the IOC's prohibition on protest signs within venues could be in violation of the right of freedom of expression.

In their statement of defence, VANOC argues a victory for the women could mean the IOC will never again award an Olympics to Canada.

The claim raises a lot of eyebrows, even among longtime supporters of the Olympic movement.

The IOC would never do that, said Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and professor at the University of Toronto.

"If it were true, whose side are we on?," he said.

"If the price of hosting the Olympic Games, or the Winter Olympic Games, is that we deny opportunities to women, well, maybe we don't want the Games."

The decision to keep women ski jumpers off the mountain in 2010 was made by the IOC in 2006.

At the time, the IOC argued the sport wasn't developed enough to merit inclusion.

Among other things, the women didn't hold their first world championship until this past winter.

The women argue the rules aren't applied evenly, with newer sports that don't meet those criteria for both genders added to the Games roster.

They didn't sue the IOC because of jurisdictional issues and had earlier filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The complaint was dropped after the federal government promised to intervene, but Gary Lunn, the current secretary for state for sport, said in February he had no intention of doing so.

The women are asking the court to make VANOC include them at the Games or preclude the men from competing.

At this point, the trial might just be a way for both the IOC and VANOC to save face in a case that's attracted worldwide attention.

"It's too late for the IOC to say 'We recognize the injustice in denying the women this right and we're embarrassed it's taken a Canadian court to remind us of what we should be about - enhancing sport and physical activity for all people."' said Kidd.

"But if not, (they) can still say we didn't want this to happen but they forced us to do it."

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