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July 31, 2014

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A giant leap but also small step for women

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AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

Germany’s Carina Vogt celebrates after her first attempt during the women’s normal hill ski jumping final at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Two giant leaps by a 22-year-old woman, and another small step for womankind.

Like Neil Armstrong, Carina Vogt carved her name into history. No, she didn't land on the moon. Only 12 men got to do that. Women have had to do all of their flying on or around Earth. And, oh, did Vogt fly Tuesday.

Her huge leaps and steady nerves made her the first female ski jumping champion in Olympic history. Floating above the gleaming, flood-lit white hill, the German gracefully shattered a glass ceiling that should been dismantled years ago.

Battling long and hard for this, their rightful place at the Olympics, made the ski jumping women into a close-knit, even more determined sorority. But as emancipating as it was to see Vogt and the 29 other pioneers soar with their braids and ponytails, this night isn't even the beginning of the end of the fight for gender equality in sports.

Trends of girls doing less sport than boys start in childhood. Too often, women athletes who do reach the top see less money, less sponsorship and less media coverage than men. So the ground-breaking must not stop with these women with their big skis and big hearts who proved to a global audience what they themselves already knew: that they can hurl themselves down an icy hill and into the void with the best and bravest.

In the crowd on this chill and historic Russian night were parents whose persistent lobbying and simple argument — "Our girls can jump!" — embarrassed and helped wear down stick-in-the-muds in skiing and at the International Olympic Committee who eventually ran out of excuses.

They included Peter and Barbara Jerome, parents of Jessica, from Park City, Utah. She placed 10th. Peter said the trek his daughter and the other women had to take to get this far taught him "that life is not fair."

"Women are the underdog in sport because, I think for whatever reason, they are the underdog in producing revenue," he said.

But achieving equality in sport — indeed in life — isn't merely a question of finance but also of will and of challenging tradition.

At the Sochi Games, the IOC added more opportunities for women to compete. Biathlon and luge, for example, both have new relay races with men and women teaming together.

Still, there are 1,712 male athletes in Sochi to 1,155 women, and 18 of the 88 countries brought no female competitors. Nordic combined, where athletes ski jump and race cross-country, has no women competitors.

Ski jumping gave the women one competition, for 30 jumpers. The men got 70 competitors and three competitions, one on the so-called "normal" hill that the women jumped and another two on the even larger hill that remains an exclusive male preserve at the Olympics and will stay that way at the next games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Women have two large hill events on their World Cup circuit. But the ski federation which organizes the Olympic jumping competition only wants to add a mixed-gender team event on the smaller hill in 2018. That will double the women's medal chances but also mean they remain junior partners to the men.

"The discipline is still very young," said the federation's ski jump competition director, Walter Hofer. "Step by step we will improve."

Peter Jerome doesn't buy that.

Women jump on larger hills "all the time. They are more than capable," he said. "It's always easy to justify a go-slow approach."

For the record, Vogt's first jump of 103 meters was further than all but two of the men, although the women did start from slightly higher up on the hill.

Perched on the seat at the top, Vogt stared through her goggles at the giddy drop-off and threw herself down it.

Into a crouch, arms behind her, accelerating to 90 kph (55 mph) in around five seconds — faster than most sports cars.

The rumble of her skis on the ice grew to a roar underneath her.

Then silence.

She was in the air.

Flying, flying, flying.

Then down.

The "oooh!" from the crowd drowned out the gunshot-like crack the skis make on landing, slapping against the hard snow.

As she came to a stop, James Brown singing "I Feel Good" played over the speakers.

Quite a night.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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