VANCOUVER — Ten years after the triumphant whoosh of her first ski jump at Calgary’s Olympic Park, Katie Willis readied herself to walk away from the sport after Canada’s highest court brought an end to the legal battle by female jumpers hoping to compete in the Vancouver Games.
The Supreme Court of Canada announced Tuesday that it will not hear an appeal from the female athletes.
“We’ve tried and we’ve put so much into this. This is the sport that I love and this is like someone telling me that I can’t do it anymore and that’s pretty heartbreaking,” Willis, 18, said in an interview.
The women contend that the Charter of Rights governs the Olympic Games and that Vancouver organizers are breaking the law by hosting only men’s ski jumping.
They were seeking leave to appeal two lower-court rulings that said the charter cannot dictate which sports are included in the Winter Games. The lower courts ruled that the charter does not apply to the International Olympic Committee, which decides which sports are included in the Games.
The IOC has denied any discrimination.
The committee voted in 2006 not to include women’s ski jumping at the 2010 Games because the sport was not developed enough. The IOC rules required at least two world championships before a sport could become an Olympic event.
There are also IOC rules dictating how far in advance of an Olympics a sport can be added to the program but even with the opening ceremonies less than two months away, the women held out hope they would be competing.
The women say they have now held enough international competitions to qualify, and it wouldn’t be difficult for organizers to accommodate one additional event.
Willis said Tuesday’s ruling might well mark the end of her ski jumping career.
“I am going to school next year so I think I might be done,” she said. “It’s too bad.”
Willis, who has been accepted to McGill University in Montreal, first caught the ski jumping bug at the age of eight during a camp visit to Olympic Park in Calgary.
“I tried biking, luge and going off the little ski jumps and I just loved it from the first jump,” she said.
When asked if she landed that first jump, Willis couldn’t help but laugh.
“I probably fell. I think I fell for pretty much the first year,” she said.
While Willis pondered walking away from the sport she loves, fellow Canuck Zoya Lynch already has.
Lynch stopped jumping last year out of frustration but stayed on for the legal challenge. She said the high court ruling hit hard.
“My initial reaction was very surprised and super disappointed,” she said. “I thought that they would give us a hearing and listen to our case.”
Lynch has switched her athletic focus to freestyle skiing but said she no longer dreams of competing in the Olympics.
“I’m kind of sick of that whole thing,” she said. “I’m doing it for myself but we’ll see where it takes me.”
Deedee Corradini, president of Women’s Ski Jumping USA and a vocal supporter of the legal challenge put forward by the jumpers, called the ruling “disappointing.”
“The athletes have been disappointed so many times and this will be another disappointment on the road,” she said in an interview.
“But these women are so incredible, they don’t give up, they won’t give up, and we’re going to keep fighting until these women are in the Olympics.”
Corradini, the former mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, said the attention will now shift to getting women’s ski jumping included in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“That is what we will start working on right away. And that’s where our focus has to be going forward,” she said.
Vancouver’s Olympic organizing committee, or VANOC, said in a statement it hopes the female ski jumpers have a place in future Games.
“We appreciate the Supreme Court of Canada’s time and careful consideration of these complex issues,” said the statement, attributed to VANOC chief executive officer John Furlong.
“We remain supportive of these young women and of having women’s ski jumping added to the roster of future Olympic Winter Games.”
The women first launched a lawsuit against local organizers in May 2008, 18 months after the International Olympic Committee decided to exclude the sport.
They dropped a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission when the federal government agreed to lobby the IOC. When that failed, they pursued the court case.
The women wanted the courts to force Games organizers to either add a women’s event or cancel the men’s. Organizers said they could do neither.
Women’s ski jumping will be included in the inaugural Winter Youth Olympics in 2012. IOC president Jacques Rogge has said the sport has a very strong case to be part of future Olympics.
Willis said even if she gives up jumping herself, she will continue to push for women’s ski jumping to be included.
“Maybe it won’t be me (competing) but I want to keep on trying to pioneer this and get it in for 2014.”
Lynch said she’s far from optimistic the IOC will ever include women’s ski jumping in the Winter Games.
“If they think that the sport doesn’t meet the technical criteria now, when are they ever going to think that? Women’s ski jumping is as good as it’s ever been,” she said.
Ross Clark, the lawyer who represented the women, said the case was a textbook example of gender discrimination and the Supreme Court of Canada should have viewed the matter as one of national importance.
“We’re obviously really disappointed, not necessarily surprised but certainly disappointed,” he said in an interview.
“I think it’s the end of the line.”