February 1, 2006

Ski Jumping Makes Winter Games Worth Watching

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Have you ever seen that Werner Herzog movie about a ski jumper, called The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner? No? I can’t believe it. It’s about this Swiss dude named Walter Steiner. He was great ski jumper back in the 1970s, and he won a silver medal at the 1972 Games. He was so good that people worried that he would sail beyond the normal landing zone, with unfortunate results. In addition to ski jumping – which, as you probably know, is the winter sport where you ski down a ramp and eventually take off into the air – Steiner also created intricate woodcarvings in his spare time. Anyway, by all accounts this was a great film.

Now I’ve never actually seen the movie, but it sounds cool. There’s something affecting about ski jumping, with all the danger and elegance of it. And of course, it’s also perfect for a sportswriter because it comes ready-made with a bunch of easy-to-use flying metaphors.

I’m not mentioning the movie to impress you with my film knowledge. No, the truth is that I’m really trying to become interested in the Torino Olympic Games – which start on Feb. 10 – and ski jumping has caught my interest.

I have to admit that I’m more of a Summer Olympics kind of guy. Swimming, running, javelin – that kind of thing. But I’d really like to try to enjoy the Winter Games this time. Now a lot of other winter sports – such as curling, which is like shuffleboard on ice – are not for me. I guess hockey and snowboarding are cool, but it’s ski jumping that gets my vote for the best Winter Olympics event.

Ski jumping was really the first extreme sport. Long before the Winter X-Games, a Norwegian named Sondre Norheim jumped about 100 feet in 1860. Was that a large distance for such an early time period? Honestly, I have no idea, but it probably was. Eventually, the sport became a popular event at European winter competitions, and it’s been a part of the Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924.

As you might imagine, ski jumping is still very popular in the Nordic countries. In Finland, for example, the country’s most famous jumpers are elevated to near-Hollywood celebrity status. It’s also big in Norway, which proudly calls itself the “cradle of ski jumping.” America, however, has not won a gold medal in the event since Calvin Coolidge was President.

Nowadays, there are actually three different ski jumping events at the Olympics – a large hill event, a normal hill event, and a team competition, which tallies up a combined score of different individual jumps.

Olympic athletes can typically manage distances of almost 200 yards, and they’re judged on distance as well as “style.” Control and balance during the jump – as well as making the landing – are the key components of style points.

The sport is obviously pretty dangerous, so you might not want to try ski jumping yourself. After all, I think we all know one or two Cornellians who have torn ankles after, say, jumping up and down in celebration after getting an 84 on a prelim. So skiing down a ramp and then flying hundreds of feet into the air might not be a good idea for the injury-prone.

But for the Olympic athletes who know what they’re doing, it will be a pretty intense few days of competition in Torino. Apparently, this year’s gold competition looks like a battle between Janne Ahonen of Finland – a long-time competitor who is now in his prime – and Jakub Janda from the Czech Republic, who won a silver medal at the 2005 World Championships.

I happened to see some video of the World Championships, and I really don’t know how these guys manage the landings.

You see, I’m a pretty hardened journalist and so I’m not necessarily impressed by many things. But I’m willing to give some credit to ski jumping. So if you’re like me and would like to get excited about the Olympics for reasons other than the occasional hot female snowboarder, you should watch these brave athletes fly in Torino.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Staff Writer. Fast Times will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman