Lindsey Vonn should accept the compromise. The international skiing federation (known by its French acronym, FIS), in rejecting her bid to enter the men's World Cup downhill race at Lake Louise, Alberta, later this month, encouraged her to request a spot as a forerunner, a skier who tests the course before the official event.
The idea may sound condescending to someone who has thoroughly dominated women's events. You can go through the service entrance, Ms. Vonn. But her desire to compete with men should be primarily about challenging herself on their courses, which are more demanding than the women's.
Her North American supporters, including the organizer of the Canadian race she tried to enter, want to see her in the field as a promotional tool. They think a crossover act could bring attention to their sport the way Annika Sorenstam's appearance in a 2003 PGA tournament elevated excitement about the entire game of golf.
But World Cup races, unlike the PGA Tour, do not have sponsor's exemptions that bring in extra players who qualify primarily by pleasing people who put up money for the event. Sorenstam did not crowd out an athlete of merit. Vonn, however minimally, could cost a guy by pushing him into an inferior starting time.
So it was difficult to read sexism into the FIS statement explaining its denial of her bid: "One gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other.''
The flaws of the rejection lie purely in the organization’s failure to push the sport to a new frontier. The forerunner's gig represents a halfway point, imperfectly allowing Vonn to test what she, and ultimately other women, can do. Skiers do not race head-to-head, so Vonn wouldn't sacrifice that element of competition.
"Times for forerunners, by regulation, are not released publicly,'' U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association spokesman Tom Kelly said by e-mail when asked to explain the most tangible shortcoming of Vonn's remaining option. They are timed during their runs, he said, but "no record is kept.''
The USSA petitioned the international federation on Vonn's behalf and accepted defeat graciously. It had to know that the request was a Hail Mary pass with no receivers in the end zone. The European leaders of the sport do not lack publicity to the same degree as their North American counterparts.
But asking for official timekeeping on Vonn's exhibition work over a men's course should be a much easier proposition. It wouldn't result in reverse discrimination or in a man asking for a spot in a women's race. It would just formalize the time of one forerunner.
In the Lake Louise race last year, Vonn won the final day's downhill by an overwhelming 1.68 seconds. The men's a few days earlier had been decided by six one-hundredths of a second, a more common margin in the sport. The course for the women's race was 17 meters longer than the men's (3068 to 3051) and both had 800-meter vertical drops. But men's courses tend to be harder and icier, supporting their heavier frames and promoting faster times. Vonn was almost four seconds slower than the men's top finisher, but as USSA officials point out, the different conditions make the results impossible to compare accurately.
Ask high-level female athletes to define inequality, and lower visibility and sponsorship money would be their chief complaints, followed by excessive interest in their sexual desirability -- a factor some women, including the stunning Vonn, have been able to turn to their advantage. But from a strictly athletic point of view, women should be most insulted by antiquated competitive standards that bar them from pushing themselves to levels already expected of men.
Some of the best reforms would include:
- Best-of-five matches in tennis. Remember the 4-hour, 48-minute Wimbledon showdown between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2008? The exquisite tension in Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 win? That can never happen for the women now. A lightweight best-of-three format makes it impossible. At the very least, the women of 2012 should be required to play best-of-five in all Grand Slam finals. As it is, we have more modern expectations for their advancement of fashion than we apply to their stamina.
- The LPGA should work towards playing off the back tees on every hole. By now, all par-3's should be played from there. Would such a change slow down the game and drive up scores? Sure, in the beginning. But several of today's women already drive the ball as far as men of previous generations. The challenge would enliven the sport, and could attract more spectators.
- Olympic swimming has to close the gap between the distance freestyle events, which still require women to cover only 800 meters compared to the men's 1,500. How is this possible a full 28 years after Joan Benoit won the first Olympic women's marathon?
In alpine skiing, immediately sending every current female competitor to the starting gate of a men's course might be unwise. For safety reasons, especially in the risky downhill, there'd have to be an adjustment period. Vonn could lead it off in three weeks at Alberta's Lake Louise. She should still be able to compete in the women's race there six days later.
Someday, that sport and others might operate more like a marathon, with all competitors using the same course and only the results segregated by sex. It's not hard to imagine a golf tournament or two working that way, as well, with women and men teeing off together and the purse distributed in separate categories.
At the moment, Vonn appears to be held back by the division of the sexes. But in the bigger picture, she owes her career to segregation by sex. Without it, she wouldn't be an Olympic champion or a millionaire able to compete into her late 20s. Without it, she couldn't hope to finish in the top 30 among the men. The training and equipment resources wouldn't have been there for her.
Someday, she may be able to try to beat the guys. For now, she should accept the challenge of joining them.