So many factors play into the aerodynamics of ski jumping that the women could well fly farther than the men during their first-ever Olympic ski-jumping competition in Sochi this week.
"They have certain advantages," said Joe Lamb, a former Olympian from Lake Placid, N.Y., who served on the International Ski Federation's ski jumping committee. "If we take the same biomechanical forces at takeoff, women are going to jump farther because they're typically lighter."
But that's not really the point. The important thing about Tuesday's first Olympic run by women ski jumpers is that they'll finally be on equal footing with men after a decades-long struggle. "It was too long of a wait," Lamb told NBC News.
For years, ski officials insisted that women were too delicate for the sport. In 2005, the ski federation's president at the time, Gian Franco Kasper, suggested that the shock of landing "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view." U.S. ski jumper Lindsey Van told NBC that such remarks made her "kind of want to vomit."
One can only imagine what Van wanted to do when she heard about the comments made last month by Alexander Arefyev, the Russian men's ski jumping coach who admitted he's not a fan of having women in the sport. "It's too hard work," he was quoted as telling the newspaper Izvestia. "Women have a different purpose — to have children, do housework, to create a family home."
Van and nine other female jumpers sued Olympic organizers in 2009, seeking unsuccessfully to get their event into the lineup for the following year's Vancouver Games. In 2011, the International Olympic Committee finally relented, acknowledging that the sport was advanced enough to include in the Sochi Games.
"The largest hurdle was what I would consider more nonsense — where they would never allow women and men to jump after each other," Lamb said.
Aerodynamics are keyScientists say the aerodynamics of a ski jump naturally favor smaller, lighter skiers over bigger, heavier ones, assuming that all other factors are held constant.
"Already in 1995 I had a publication in Nature, and we also wrote that women may become a competitive threat," Wolfram Müller, a researcher at the Medical University of Graz in Austria, told NBC News. "In this publication, I made a suggestion that the ski jumping regulations should consider the weight of the athletes."
Ski officials followed through on that suggestion, and as a result, the maximum length of a jumper's skis is determined by their body-mass index. Lighter athletes are limited to shorter skis to compensate for their innate aerodynamic advantage. "The International Ski Federation made an important step in the right direction, but it should be more pronounced," Müller said.
Another way to calibrate performance is to have the athletes start their descent from higher or lower gates on the hill. Wind is an important factor, particularly on the Sochi course. Points can be added or deducted to a skier's score depending on the starting gates and the wind conditions, as well as for style and distance.
"From a physics point of view, the most important factors are the aerodynamic forces, the lift and drag forces," Müller said. "So the athlete tries to have a very high lift force acting on him. ... There's no reason why women shouldn't fly down the hill as well as men."
The biggest challenge in the air is to keep the body and skis in the best configuration to take advantage of the shifting aerodynamics — and to look good while you're doing it. "A lot of people say the women look more stylish than the men," Lamb said.
When all the factors are taken into account, the women's showdown should be at least as exciting as the men's. "Same hill, same scoring system, same opportunities for women as for the men," Lamb said.
Van is among the favorites, along with her U.S. teammate Sarah Hendrickson and 17-year-old Japanese phenom Sara Takanashi.
Bouncing backHendrickson is bouncing back from a serious knee injury that she suffered last year during training in Germany. Lamb said that injury shouldn't be seen as a sign that women aren't as fit as men for the rigors of ski jumping. Rather, the incident illustrates how important it is for officials as well as competitors to calibrate the parameters of a particular day's jump correctly.
"You overjump that hill, and it doesn't matter whether you're a woman or a man — you're going to be in trouble," Lamb said.
The technologies and training techniques available to ski jumpers have become far more refined than they were when Lamb was an Olympian in 1972. A decade ago, the impact felt on landing was equivalent to dropping down from a height of 12 feet — or, roughly speaking, the second story of a building. Fortunately, for the women as well as the men, the circumstances are different today.
"Over the last 10 years, the landing forces of a modern jumper have become less than if you hopped off a 3-foot-high table," Lamb said. "A lot of these physical issues they talk about? I just don't see them."