Being able to ski is an exhilarating sporting activity which has millions of aficionados throughout the world. A jump lasts less than 30 seconds, but the flight is breathtaking and, in the Winter Olympics, ski jumpers launch themselves from hills 90 and 120 metres high, flying through the air with grace, confidence and speed. But how did it all start?
Ski jumping began 200 years ago, essentially as a show of courage in 1809, when a Norwegian lieutenant, Olaf Rye, ski jumped 9.5 metres in the air in front of his soldiers. He was seeking a way to motivate his troops by demonstrating his bravery and fortitude to them. In performing this stunt, he became the first known ski jumper. After that, skiing became a popular attraction at ski carnivals in Norway.
In 1860, the Norwegian carpenter and ski-maker Sondre Nordheim jumped a distance of 30m. Widely considered to be the father of modern ski jumping, he won the world’s first ski jumping competition, held at Ofte six years later. Local jumping competitions sprang up across the country and referees and rules were added as the sport evolved. The first national official ski jumping competition was held in Norway in 1872. Twenty years later, the Norwegian Royal Family lent their patronage to the sport and held the King’s Cup at Holmenkollen, near Oslo.
Fast forward to 1924 when ski jumping was included at the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France. Almost predictably, Norwegians Jacob Thams, Narve Bonna and Thorleif Haug swept the medals. Ski jumping became part of the Olympic Winter Games from that year, in the form of one special ski jumping event, the 90m. The ‘normal hill’ competition (70m height) was included on the Olympic programme for the Innsbruck Games in 1964, at the same time as the existing ‘large hill’ event of 120m became official. The team event was added as a third competition from 1988.
Nations compete in three skiing events in the Winter Olympics: individual normal hill, individual large hill, and team (which is contested on the large hill). Each athlete attempts two jumps. Landings are videotaped for exact measuring purposes, and points are awarded based on the length and style of the jump. The skier, or team of skiers, with the highest combined total of distance points and style points is awarded the gold medal. Not surprisingly, Norway, Finland, and Austria have won the most ski jumping medals (they have bagged 650 medals between them across the board since the Games began!).
The first major star was also a Norwegian, Birger Ruud, who won the K90 Olympic gold medals in 1932 and 1936. However, the greatest skier so far is considered to be the ‘Flying Finn’ who cleared the medals board in 1988. At the Calgary Olympics, Matt Nykanen (from Finland) produced the greatest performance in Olympic ski jumping history. He stormed the field to win the 70m and 90m events. He then led Finland to the first-ever team gold, becoming the first ski jumper to collect three gold medals in one Olympics.
The sport has evolved enormously in the past century. As jumpers strove for greater distance and speed this has also resulted in some innovative jumping techniques. At the 2002 Olympics, for example, the ski jump competition was located at 7,350 feet in Utah Olympic Park, the highest of any World Cup venue in the world. Competitors not only had to negotiate sometimes-gusty winds whipping up the run, but also had to remain aloft in the thin air. These longer jumps give the athletes more time to test out different aerodynamic positions thereby increasing both distance and success. Women are gradually making their mark in the sport but ski jumping has remained, so far, a men’s only event at the Winter Olympics.