NBC ski jumping analyst Jeff Hastings, a 1984 Olympian who’s provided commentary at every Winter Olympics since 1988, has already told EW why the sport makes great TV: “It’s an amazing piece of physics and an amazing bit of courage to do it well.” But as the women finally get their chance on the normal hill — qualifying for the inaugural women’s ski jumping event on Feb. 11 livestreams on NBCOlympics.com at 12:30 p.m. ET, followed by the final round at 1:25 p.m. ET, before airing in primetime on NBC — we should acknowledge that for them, it’s also taken some patience. In 2009, America’s Lindsey Van, now 29 and competing in Sochi, held the record at the hill where the men competed at the Vancouver Games — which means she would have been the gold medal favorite.
“If you’re totally unbiased about this, the women probably should have been in the 2010 Games, but probably shouldn’t have been in before that,” Hastings says, explaining that 2009 was the first year women had an official world championship (which Van won). “The IOC, rightly so, says, ‘Look, you need to have this many nations, and this many participants, and this big a tour before we’ll consider you as a possibility for an Olympic sport.’ [Women] pushed hard in ’02, they pushed hard in ’06, and got turned down. In ’10, you could argue that with their world championship in ’09, they really deserved to be there, but it was a tight turnaround, and in the meantime, one or two IOC people said some pretty sexist, stupid things that everybody hung their hat on as the reason why they were saying no. But long story short, they’re in now, and they deserve to be in, and they’re still going to be fighting like heck to get on the large hill in 2018. So the fight’s not over, but the first battle’s been won — and everyone’s winning in this deal.”
The sage Van isn’t expected to be a medal contender in Sochi. “Head Coach Alan Alborn says, ‘Four or five years ago there are three or four girls at the top who are all much better than the rest. And then all of the sudden there was 15, and then 20,’” Hastings says. “Each time a new wave comes in, they’re younger and they’re better than the old wave that you thought was as good as it was gonna get. So Lindsey’s lived through two or three of those new generation of kids coming in, and they’re gonna be tough to deal with, for sure.” Japan’s 17-year-old Sara Takanashi had seemed invincible until recent events, so someone could give her a run for the gold (though she’s won two of the three training rounds in Sochi); Van’s 19-year-old American teammate Sarah Hendrickson (pictured) had been mentioned for a podium position, but while she’ll compete, an August crash that shredded her knee is taking its toll on her body and mind.
If you do tune in, Hastings says you might be surprised: Though he doesn’t have numbers to back it up, “in Europe,” he says, “the women apparently have far more passionate followers and far more people watching them because they are so much more willing to show the emotion — both the good and the bad — and let their personality come through and not be behind this veneer of professionalism that seems to have enveloped more and more of these ‘amateur sports’ as more and more money comes into them. There’s just a lot of excitement and genuine enthusiasm that comes through with the newness of the tour and the newness of these women coming to the tour.”