Japan’s Sara Takanashi is the favourite to make history as the first Olympic women’s ski jumping champion and to cap a long, bruising battle for equality in the sport.
Ski jumping is one of just six sports which have been included in the programme of all of the Olympics since the very first Winter Games took place at Chamonix, France, in 1924.
But before this year, ski jumping and the related sport "nordic combined" remained the last men-only disciplines in the programme.
The International Olympic Committee’s reluctance to open the door had some base in logic as its regulations stipulate that the event must be practiced in at least 35 countries and must have held at least two world championships before being considered for inclusion in the Olympics.
Meanwhile, no women’s competitions in ski jumping were held in the world before 2006, when women began participating in the FIS Continental Cup.
Later the pressure from the United States forced the international ski federation (FIS) bosses to include the women’s jumping event into the programme of the 2009 world championships.
The US ski-jumping star Lindsey Van won the maiden world title at the event, which took place at Liberec, Czech Republic.
The IOC then yielded to pressure and in April 2011 women’s ski jumping was included in the Sochi Games.
“It’s great! For 20 years you hear no, no, no and then one day it’s yes,” Van said.
At Sochi, where the venue for the ski jumping was constructed in the saddle between two mountain ridges that will protect the athletes from the sidewind rushes, the women will compete in K-95 discipline.
High school student Takanashi, who confidently leads this season’s World Cup ahead of German Carina Vogt and third-placed Irina Avvakumova of Russia, looks clear favourite.
The 17-year-old Takanashi stepped up her bid for Olympic gold last weekend, taking her record-stretching 17th World Cup win at her home ground at Zao, north of Tokyo.
She has also eight wins in nine events this season.
On January 11 in Sapporo, she broke the previous mark of 13 wins set by world champion Sarah Hendrickson.
The 19-year-old American, the winner of the inaugural women’s World Cup overall title in the 2011-2012 season, is recovering from a cruciate ligament injury after a fall in August.
But she was back in training this month.
“I feel like I have nothing to worry about,” said the 152-cm-tall Takanashi. “I want to work harder still and raise my level higher and higher.”
“It was really great because I think I can now go to Sochi with a positive image in my mind.”
Meanwhile, Austrian reigning World Cup holder Gregor Schlierenzauer is a red-hot favourite for the men’s competitions, where golds are up for grabs in the K-95 and K-125 individual events and K-125 team championship.
Schlierenzauer won three medals at the last year World Championships and led Austria to the gold medal in the team event at the Vancouver Olympics.
“It’s now definitely the best motivation for me,” the 24-year-old said. “Of course when you look at my career list then there is just an individual Olympic medal missing and that will be my goal at these Games.”
The Swiss veteran and four-time Olympic champion Simon Ammann, 32, who looks strong again this season, is also among the Sochi Games favourites.
Meanwhile, the hopes of the Austrian team of repeating their Olympic success by winning the team event suffered a serious blow when three-time Olympic champion Thomas Morgenstern suffered a horrific crash-landing when he lost balance in mid-air at a recent World Cup event.