Feb 10 2014, 5:47 AM EST -
By David Ljunggren
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Women ski jumpers will compete in the Olympics for the first time on Tuesday after more than a decade of pleading, fighting, tears and humiliation and while the athletes are happy to make their Games debut in Sochi they say their fight isn't over yet.
The sport favors light jumpers and although women can often leap as far as men, they were excluded on the grounds there were not enough good athletes to ensure a real competition.
Women jumpers had petitioned to be included in every Games since Nagano in 1998 but it was not until April 2011 that the International Olympic Committee announced female athletes could compete on the normal hill in Sochi.
For some competitors, though, this is only the first step.
Coline Mattel of France, a good bet to win a medal, said women were still not allowed to compete on the large hill or take part in the mixed team event, which features on the World Cup circuit.
"We haven't won yet," the 18-year-old told reporters.
The fact she will be jumping even one hill can in many ways be traced back to Park City, Utah, where the parents of young jumper Jessica Jerome realized in 2002 she was not being allowed to compete and that U.S. skiing authorities had little interest in women's jumping.
Peter Jerome bought a book titled: "Non profits for dummies" and set up a body to raise money and awareness of the sport.
"It very quickly turned into other things, like a huge lobbying organization for inclusion of women in the Olympics," he told Reuters.
The small non-profit is now Women's Ski Jumping USA, which runs and largely funds the sport.
"I didn't think it would be as costly as it was ... for all the board members in terms of the amount of time and effort and angst and heartache," said Jerome, who had to fit his work for the body around a career as an airline pilot for Delta.
Women have been jumping since the early 1900s but it was not until 1998 that they began to petition the IOC ahead of every Olympics to be allowed to compete.
Each time the IOC argued there were not enough good women jumpers to guarantee a quality competition. And the backers of women's ski jumping were learning that few people seemed to realize or care that female athletes had been excluded.
"I definitely had levels of frustration beyond belief. I just couldn't believe ... that so many people still lived in the Dark Ages," Jessica's mother Barb told Reuters.
Women eventually gained their own second-tier international competition in 2004 but could not break into the Olympics.
Some suspected sexism might be partly responsible and noted comments that International Ski Federation President Gian Franco Kasper made to National Public Radio in 2005.
"Don't forget, it's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view," he said.
In 2013, after the women had won their fight, U.S. jumper Lindsey Van told NBC the comments had made her want to vomit.
"I'm sorry, but my baby-making organs are on the inside. Men have an organ on the outside. So if it's not safe for me jumping down, (because) my uterus is going to fall out, what about the organ on the outside of the body?" she raged.
In a bid to force the IOC's hand, 15 women launched a lawsuit against the organizers of the Vancouver Games in 2009. A top Canadian court dismissed the move, saying it could not order the committee to allow the women in.
A tearful Van dubbed the IOC "The Taliban of the Olympics" and temporarily quit the sport.
When the 2010 Games opened, Van held the record on the normal hill in Vancouver. Yet women were only allowed to act as forerunners, who go down the track first before an event.
"It was a little strange: 'You're not good enough to be here, but you're good enough to test out the hill to see if it's good enough for men,'" she said.
The athletes say the constant battles and uncertainty made it harder for them to compete.
"It was a tough fight. It was hard being an athlete and doing that at the same time but ... we knew it was right and that's why we tried so hard," said Canada's Katie Willis.
One of those who took part in the lawsuit was Austria's Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, one of the favorites to win gold on Tuesday.
Asked whether she had ever worried that women would fail in their bid, Iraschko-Stolz told reporters on Sunday: "Yes, at the end of every month because I needed to (ask) my mother to send me some money."
Barb Jerome says she is not angry about the amount of time it took to win but the irritation is evident in her voice.
"The battle is not over ... for them to just have this one event is a little frustrating," she said. "I'm disappointed they're not letting them jump the large hill and I don't know what it's going to require to get them to that level."
While the athletes in Sochi are happy to get the chance to compete, it has come too late for others.
Willis, who in 2006 was ranked sixth in the world, quit after the Vancouver lawsuit to focus on her studies.
"I wish I could see what my life would have been like had I chosen to go on competing," the 22-year-old said wistfully by telephone from Montreal's McGill University.
"It would be amazing to go to those Olympics after I had pushed so hard and we had worked for it but maybe it wasn't my time."
(Reporting by David Ljunggren)