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9 June 2017

FIS Official Responds to Lindsey Vonn’s Request to Compete against Men

American alpine skier Lindsey Vonn has earned medals in Winter Olympic and World Championship titles over the course of her career, with her total World Cup wins marking her as the most accomplished downhill racer in history. It’s a remarkable feat for the winter sports star whose medal count would likely have been higher had she not suffered injuries during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. However, despite all her success, she’s not quite finished with her record-breaking career.

Before her planned retirement at the end of the 2018-19 season, she wants to achieve three things: to earn a medal at the 2018 winter Olympics, to break the record of World Cup career wins, and to compete against men in a downhill event.

It’s the last of those that has brought Vonn’s name back into the news once again.

In January of this year, the skier put forward a petition to the International Ski Federation (FIS) requesting entry into the men’s World Cup race that’s scheduled for November 2018. The event would take place at Lake Louise, a spot where Vonn has had her highest total victories with eighteen wins over the last sixteen years. It’s also the only venue included in the World Cup where both men and women compete on the same course.

During an interview with the Denver Post, she was quoted as saying:

“I know I’m not going to win, but I would like to at least have the opportunity to try. I think I’ve won enough World Cups where I should have enough respect within the industry to be able to have that opportunity.”

This request is not her first – she was previously denied a petition back in 2012. At the time, the refusal was clear that gendered races strictly refuse the involvement of people of the opposite sex, but this time around there may potentially be more leniency towards Vonn’s appeal. Her petition was discussed last month and she hasn’t been told outright that she will be unsuccessful. Instead it will be considered during a meeting of the FIS in October. As long as the US Ski Association provide a strong proposal when the time comes around, Vonn may have a chance, although no-one should be getting their hopes up just yet.

One man is still standing in her way.

Women’s race director Atle Skaardal voiced his confusion towards Vonn’s request back in January, where he said:

“To me it doesn’t matter if one gender is faster or slower. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, just because it’s of interest to one racer. I haven’t heard of any other sport being dragged into this kind of position.”

Skaardaal has now come forward again with a similar viewpoint, but one more rooted in the repercussions of allowing Vonn to do what no woman has done before in a competitive environment. At the FIS spring meetings in Potoroz, he talked of the difficulties in ensuring equality with such a request:

“It will be a very difficult challenge to find a reasonable way of doing this. Because one point that everyone is underestimating, is that we need to have equal rights for everyone. So if the ladies are allowed to race with the men, then also the men need to be authorised to ski with the ladies.”

These remarks bring up a very difficult topic when it comes to competitive sport of any nature. While Vonn is extremely talented in her field and would prove a challenge against the men, the same might not apply to other skiers.

To avoid favouritism, the FIS wouldn’t be able to stop men from joining women’s competitive events and vice versa, which might leave some racers feeling as though they no longer have a chance at making the podium. Biologically speaking, men are on average developed to be slightly faster, and this is shown in race speeds. For example, the world records for Speed Skiing set in France last year show a difference of almost 5mph between the fastest man and woman, with the former coming out on top.

This doesn’t mean female skiers should be prevented from racing against men – far from it. Someone as decorated as Vonn who has brought so much attention to the sport deserves a chance to bridge the gap between gendered competitions and inspire young women and girls interested in skiing. The FIS just need to find a way to work out the kinks to prevent a snowball effect from changing the face of skiing too much.

After all, seeing Vonn proving herself against a group of male downhill skiers would be an unmissable event.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.