As Carina Vogt grabbed the first Olympic gold medal available to women ski jumpers, an achievement that prompted a rapturous Associated Press columnist to equate her with Neil Armstrong, she also advanced a case for eventually eliminating her event. The giddiness of Tuesday's breakthrough for female jumpers, who had fought vigorously in court and through the media to make this moment happen, obscured the fact that the sport could stage a genuine revolution. Despite a huge head start for men, who have been in the Winter Games for 90 years, the sexes are very close to competing together as equals.
Vogt's score of 247.4 would have placed 16th in the men's competition on the normal hill (95 kilometer, and at face value, her first-round jump of 103 meters topped all but two of the men in the same round of their event. Mitigating factors, such as wind aid and a slightly higher gate position for the women's event, skew the distance comparison, but not significantly enough to unravel what should be a dream: The chance to desegregate a sport.
In most competition, that would be impossible without excluding women entirely. At the London Games, the winner of the women's 10,000 meters would have missed the Olympic qualifying standard for men by more than two minutes (30:20.75 vs. 28:05.00). The gold medalist's time in the women's 100-meter freestyle was 53.00. The cutoff for a man just to compete in the U.S. trials was 51.49, and the male winner in London finished in 47.52.
Women in those sports have been training at the highest levels for generations. Barring radical changes in biology, those time gaps will not disappear for ages, if ever. In ski jumping, a woman has already broken the overall distance record on a normal (95k) hill. When the Vancouver Olympics began, American Lindsey Van held the world mark, for men and women, of 105.5 meters. She set it in 2008 at the venue for the 2010 Olympic Games, from which she was banned.
At the team press conference in Sochi, Van reportedly answered the question about whether women could outleap men with a hesitant and awkward "No.''
Teammate Jessica Jerome reminded the media that the women start at higher gates.
"We have a little more speed going down the in-run,'' Jerome said, according to The Boston Globe. "There are so many variables to take into account. You really can't compare it."
Those replies sounded quite different from past comments on the subject.
As recently as November, Van was quoted as saying in a New York Times magazine article: "If women can jump as far as men, what does that do to the extreme value of this sport? I think we scared the ski-jumping [establishment]." In the same story, Paolo Bernardi, then the U.S. women's national coach, said: "The gap between men and women in ski jumping is so small, you can't believe it.''
Perhaps Van thought that Sochi was not the right place to scare the establishment further. Besides, if the women can match the men, she doesn't need to talk about it. The parity, or even female superiority, will become evident soon, as Olympic recognition swells their ranks and brings in more sponsors.
The women already have one big advantage over men in this sport . Smaller physiques tend to stay aloft longer, so much so that eating disorders have become an acknowledged problem among the men. Judging might be the biggest impediment to creating mixed-sex competition, especially since so many of this generation's officials have dealt primarily with male jumpers. For whatever it's worth, the women scored lower than the men in style points. But if the top men and women can reach similar distances, the judges will have to adapt.
In 2009, when 15 women ski jumpers petitioned a Canadian court to allow them to compete in Vancouver, some supporters thoughtlessly compared the discrimination to the exclusion of black athletes from a sport. If the women had sought only the opportunity to compete against the men, that would have been true. But they wanted their own event; they asked to be segregated.
Separate events for female athletes follow the logic of weight classes that are needed to sustain a critical mass of boxers and wrestlers. The difference does not diminish women's sports anymore than Manny Pacquiao is demeaned because the scales protect him from facing Wladimir Klitschko.
But when the segregation is no longer necessary, it has to go. Jerome said that women ski jumpers don't want to be compared to men, but it makes no sense to stage two concurrent competitions in which the participants deliver roughly the same results. If the top men and women can push each other, they belong in the same field.
The idea should be exhilarating, but it would meet resistance from every corner, except the ones occupied by those who despair of the burden that the rigidly binary nature of sports places on transgender and intersex athletes.
The current athletes wouldn't want two opportunities for medals reduced to one, although a dominant woman will inevitably seek the chance to compete with the men at some point. Lindsey Vonn, who is much further behind her male counterparts, tried unsuccessfully to enter a men's World Cup race in 2012.
Most of the elders would balk at the possibility of a woman trumping all the men. That threat may account for the sport's rejection of women at the world-class level for longer than even boxing, which added female Olympians two years earlier -- with a lot less squawking.
In a recent interview with the newspaper Izvestia, as translated by NBC News , Russian men's coach Alexander Arefyev said he objected to female ski jumping, because it could damage their bodies and "Women have a different purpose --to have children, do housework, to create a family home.''
Somebody has to tell these people how sponsorship money flows. If a sport has a chance to be unique, as well as fun to watch, it's golden. Ski jumping has thrills, but so do moguls and figure skating and aerials and snowboarding and gymnastics and basketball … Ski jumping stands apart in its chance to showing the sexes competing against each other.
After about 85 years distinguished primarily by a novelty act called Eddie the Eagle and "the agony of defeat'' in the opening credits to ABC's "Wide World of Sports,'' ski jumping has a chance to become extraordinary.
Its pioneering spirit has stepped up the pace, from glacial to sluggish. After admitting women jumpers in 2009, the Nordic world championships last year included a mixed team event -- two men and two women representing each country.
For a while, it seemed that the women would never get closer to an Olympic experience than skiing as forerunners, to test the safety of the course for the men. (You can't be a coal miner, dear, but you can be the canary.) So Tuesday was special, cathartic even. But it was only a first step, taken on Russia's fake snow. The moon awaits.