"A woman as President of Lausanne 2020 sends a very strong message"

Virginie Faivre is today President of the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lausanne 2020 Organising Committee, after being part of the project since the candidature phase. Prior to that, she had a brilliant sports career in ski half-pipe with three World Championship titles and three World Cup victories, all the while working hard to move the discipline towards total male-female equality. She tells us about her career – and her battles.

“There is one woman in particular who inspired me a great deal at the start of my sports career, and who then became a very close friend, Sarah Burke. She was a pioneer of women’s freestyle skiing, and the first to fight for women to have their own division. At the time, she was competing in men’s events. When I joined the circuit, there were still not many of us; but thanks to her, we began to have a women’s competition category. Sarah was someone who really influenced me, and sadly she died in a tragic half-pipe accident in 2012. She meant a huge amount to me, as she also fought to have our discipline on the Olympic programme. We were right behind her, supporting her in her various campaigns.

“There’s also Marie Martinod, my best friend, who was the only female freestyle skier in Europe, the first one I met, and another big source of inspiration. There was a shared vision among this small group of athletes. There were four or five of us who really wanted to make an impact, and the fact that it’s now common to see girls competing in our sport is a great success. It’s gratifying to see all these girls practising our discipline today.

“I encountered a few difficulties to start with, being a woman. I had to earn my place. I think it was a question of respect. It was about getting the respect of the male colleagues who represented our discipline. We had to get credibility, and there was pressure on us to raise our game so that we could be properly recognised, not just by our male fellow athletes, but also by the federations, the various organisations, to get them to allow us room to express our qualities as athletes.

“I think that allowing our discipline onto the Olympic programme did a lot for it, but it was not about joining a men’s competition. Rather, it had to be equal on both sides and we had to show that we had our place at the Games. There was clearly support from the event organisers, who were keen to open up the competitions to the largest possible number of female participants. Having our place is one thing, but if there are only five women who can compete, and they then open up the quotas to around 20 athletes, that’s when the sport really starts to develop and grow strong. The arrival of our discipline at the Olympic Games was clearly a step which enabled us to become equal to the men. Today, there are fewer comparisons, fewer differences. Everyone has their place.

“Role models are important. At one point, there were just a few of us taking part; and we had to convince and reassure girls, tell them that they could come to the snowparks too, and take part in competitions as well. Even if they were in the minority, which was the problem. These are pretty impressive sports practised by men for the most part. When you went into a snowpark and looked to see if there was another girl, and there wasn’t, that could be quite intimidating. So it was important to show them that they had their place, too. Being able to inspire and accompany them created a snowball effect!

“There is also a problem among girls themselves: the ages of 12 to 14 are a fairly critical period when young people may give up sport. They don’t have enough self-belief. We need to show them that it is a path which is difficult and perhaps unconventional, but which can lead to some great adventures, and it teaches you a lot about life. We need to keep as many young people and women as possible practising sport.

“Huge progress has been made towards parity. Fair quotas for female participants, and prize money which is now similar for almost all events. But a lot more effort is still needed, because of the lack of woman in these disciplines. There is still not enough visibility for women. There are more images of men, and I think the media have a role to play by showing the same number of photos, by giving greater visibility to female athletes. There is still work to be done within sport, and I’m thinking about the administrative side off the field of play. It’s needed in terms of education, too, whether for parents or coaches. I think that there are still too few female coaches. There are few women at the head of sports institutions.

“When there are more women in strategic positions, they will push for more equality. But this is gradually happening. I’ve seen the huge progress made between when I started out in sport and today. I think we can use the Lausanne 2020 YOG as an example, as there will be total gender parity, with the same number of boys and girls competing in our events. We can always do better, but some very good things have already been done, and this should be stressed.

“It’s also important to underline the importance of the IOC’s efforts. The inclusion of our disciplines in the Olympic Games had a big impact. The Olympic Movement is clearly making a big effort to include women. It is there to set an example, with strong signals in support of women’s sport, and I think that the international federations are following this trend. We’re lucky to have an Olympic Movement which leads the way.

“The fact that a woman is President of the Lausanne 2020 YOG sends out a very strong message. It means offering a different, complementary viewpoint. Adding a woman’s touch is an asset which provides a positive impetus for these YOG. I’ve been very lucky. I never imagined that I could have a professional sports career. Taking part in the development of your sport is something exceptional. And then there is my ‘second career’, which allows me to stay in the world of sport and share my experience to help make the event run smoothly. I’m really happy to be able to give back to sport what it has given me.”