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Alissa Johnson competes in the women's ski jumping event at the U.S. Olympic trials in Park City, Utah, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. Women's ski jumping is set to debut in Sochi.
Women's ski jumping will finally make its Olympic debut in Sochi — 90 years after the men competed in the sport for the first time at the Winter Games. For the best female jumpers in the world, Feb. 11 will be a momentous day after years of fighting for the right to compete, including an unsuccessful court case to be included in Vancouver four years ago.
The International Olympic Committee finally decided in April 2011 to add women's jumping to the Sochi program. The delay can be partly blamed on Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, whose terrible form and questionable bravado at the 1988 Calgary Games. That brought the wrong kind of publicity to the sport and persuaded the governing body to introduce tougher qualifying restrictions, which ultimately affected female jumpers. The growth in elite women's jumping was evident in the first women's World Cup event of the season in December at Lillehammer, Norway, when 70 female jumpers from 15 countries — the largest start list ever — competed.
Here are five things to know about the event at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center at the Mountain Cluster east of Sochi:
WHY SO LONG? Female ski jumpers have heard all the excuses about why they weren't allowed into the Olympics sooner, including not having enough elite jumpers. But they were also told the female body wasn't thought to be strong enough to take the strain of repeated jumps, and even that it might affect their ability to have children. Former world champion Lindsay Van of the United States said she had people ask if her uterus had fallen out as a result of ski jumping. Van and Jessica Jerome were among the top competitors who filed the unsuccessful suit ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. "I didn't see it as something noble, I saw it more as a moral responsibility," Jerome said at a media summit last year. The lawsuit failed, with a Canadian court ruling that the IOC, not Vancouver organizers, was the only body authorized to make the call. But the case generated widespread attention.
KID BALLERINA IS BIG FAVORITE: Despite her small stature — she's 4 feet, 11 inches tall — Japan's Sara Takanashi is one of the biggest gold-medal favorites in any sport heading into Sochi. The 17-year-old Takanashi has won eight of nine World Cup events this season and is a runaway leader in the standings. Takanashi, who graduated from high school in 2012, credits ballet lessons as a child with helping her maintain balance during her jumps. "The Olympics in Sochi are my big goal," Takanashi said at a World Cup meet last year. "To fulfil my dream about a gold medal would be a huge success, but I will be glad about any position near the top."
THE COMEBACK: Perhaps the only credible threat to Takanashi's supremacy could come from American teenager Sarah Hendrickson, if she has recovered sufficiently from knee surgery. Hendrickson beat Takanashi at last year's world championships but tore her anterior cruciate ligament in August and has been fighting to be fit for Sochi ever since. Hendrickson only returned to jumping this week, but has been included in the U.S. team for Sochi. "The feeling of that first jump back was one of the best sensations in the entire world," Hendrickson said. "On the second jump, I let go of the bar and felt completely comfortable. All my nerves simply disappeared. My knee feels very good considering the situation." Van and Jessica Jerome also will be on the American team.
ONE SHOT: While the men's ski jumpers have three shots at a medal — two individual competitions and a team event — the women only get one chance. The women only compete on the normal hill — 90 meters long — whereas the men also have an individual competition on a larger 120-meter hill. While there have been mixed team events on the World Cup — with two men and two women on each team — that format is not on the schedule for Sochi.
THE FORMAT: The competition is held over two rounds, with the top 30 advancing to the second jump. The winner is determined by points, not purely on the length of the jump, with the total score a combination of distance and style. The competitors start with 60 points and receive two points for every meter jumped beyond 95 meters and two deducted for every meter under 95. There are five judges, with the best and worst scores thrown out, and the other three scores added together to determine a style score.