ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Women ski jumpers tasted Olympic competition for the first time ever at the Sochi Games and are already pushing to be included in more events.
The International Olympic Committee, which had long cited a lack of competition for keeping women out, relented after many years of pressure and allowed 30 female athletes to jump the normal hill only.
The result was more exciting than anyone had predicted.
World number one and overwhelming favorite Sara Takanashi of Japan did not even get a medal, finishing in fourth place after a taut competition won by Germany’s Carina Vogt.
“The level was absolutely out of this world, and I think the fact that Sara Takanashi did not win shows how hard it is to win a medal here,” said U.S. number one Sarah Hendrickson.
“That makes me smile because I think a lot of people expected to watch and not see that high a level but we proved them wrong. We showed that we’ve been training hard for this and we were beyond ready to have this debut.”
Many of the top women now want to be able to compete in the next Games in the large hill and the team competitions, which are still a male-only preserve.
“These Games are super, it’s a first step, but there are still so many things left,” said bronze medal winner Coline Mattel of France.
Demands for events such as the large hill are premature, says the International Ski Federation, which oversees the sport. It rejects the idea it is dragging its feet.
“It’s not a question of quality. The discipline is still very young,” said Walter Hofer, race director for ski jumping at the federation.
Hofer, who said the average age of female athletes is still under 20, noted that women had only been competing against each other internationally since 2004.
“From a sporting point of view there is no difference between men and women. But ... we have 15-year-old girls here and we just have to give them a chance to grow up and to be larger in number,” he told reporters.
The sport should benefit from the increased involvement of a determined, eloquent, good-humored and fearless group of women, who were often more interesting than the men.
Hendrickson recovered impressively fast from a major knee injury and competed even though she was in pain. Mattel is studying theatre at university.
Austrian silver medalist Daniela Iraschko-Stolz also plays professional soccer during the summer for Wacker Innsbruck, where she announced once day she was fed up with her role as goalkeeper and would play as a striker instead.
“Football was always her passion and you shouldn’t forbid Daniela from doing something. That’s a problem,” her jumping coach Harald Rodlauer told Reuters with a laugh.
Kamil Stoch of Poland won both individual hills for the men yet seemed awkward in front of the media and left few memorable impressions. Double medal winner Peter Prevc of Slovenia was similarly shy and Noriaki Kasai of Japan, who captured a silver at the age of 41, will not be jumping forever.
Austrians Thomas Morgenstern and Gregor Schlierenzauer, two of the more lively male ski jumpers, had a forgettable Olympics and had to make do with a team silver. Both men are considering their futures and could take a break from the sport.
This would leave the path open for younger Austrian team mates Thomas Diethart and Michael Hayboeck, who are still largely unknown to the wider public.
Regardless of whether there are enough characters in ski jumping, Hofer says he is optimistic about the future and mentions record television audiences. Yet he notes it is still very much a niche sport.
“There is no industry behind it, here is no tourism interest behind it and it is not a mass sport,” he said.
“The only quality we have is we are a public product. People like to watch us.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford