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Ski jumping requires combination of skill, finesse, and courage

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 1984

Sarajevo, Yugoslavia

Man has long been fascinated by flight, which in a nutshell probably explains the origin of the most gravity-defying sport in the Winter Olympics - ski jumping.

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In a sense the term is a misnomer, since competitors seem to soar rather than jump. In fact, by turning themselves into human airplane wings, these flyers can touch down more than 300 feet away from their takeoff point on a 90-meter jump.

That's the big one, but there's also a 70-meter jump, which was added to the Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria in 1964. Here in Sarajevo two beautifully engineered jumps at Malo Polje have been built into a natural mountain amphitheater outside the city. They share an outrun, or stopping area, and have cooling elements that maintain equal takeoff conditions for all competitors.

Besides the 70- and 90-meter competitions, the Winter Games have always included the Nordic combined, a separate event consisting of a 70-meter jump and a 15-kilometer cross-country ski race. Tom Sandberg of Norway won the gold medal here in this event.

Jumping is very much a finesse sport. It's important to have strong legs, of course, but a jumper's real strength, says top American Jeff Hastings, is ''in his head.''

It takes courage to lean out over one's ski tips with arms held back. That's why a featherweight like East Germany's Jens Weissflog, the lightest male athlete in these Olympics at 112 pounds, can be one of the best in his sport - as he demonstrated once again Sunday by winning the 70-meter jump here. (The 90 -meter will be held Saturday)

Courage, of course, is hardly the lone prerequisite. A Japanese Alpine skier found that out when he attempted to fill in as a ski jumper at the first Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1932 and wound up somersaulting head over heels.

The thought of taking flight off the big jumps would give pause to most people, and especially to regular viewers of ABC's ''Wide World of Sports'' program. For years the show has led off with an ''agony of defeat'' shot of a jumper's spectacular crash on takeoff. ''That's ruined us,'' says US jumper Dennis McGrane, who feels the footage paints an unrealistic picture of what is basically a safe sport.

Yugoslavia's Vinko Bogataj, the unidentified skier in that famous 1970 ''Wide World'' sequence, is retired from jumping now but obviously has lost none of his love for the sport - and in fact is working at the starting gate of the ski jumps here. A reminder of the attendant dangers occurred last Friday, however, when another Yugoslav athlete, Nordic combined competitor Drago Vidic, fell heavily after an off-balance landing.

Despite such occasional mishaps, however, jumpers say the sport is a lot safer than it looks. Hastings, who was ninth in the 70-meter event here, says there are several reasons for this, the main one being the jumper's relative proximity to the ground. The hill is contoured to coincide with the jumper's flight pattern so that, appearances to the contary, he is really seldom more than 10 or 15 feet in the air.

Other factors include the flexibility of the bindings, which leave the heel to float free, and the incline of the landing area, which generally permits those who fall to slide rather than tumble down the slope.

For this same reason, the touch-down at the end of the jump can be achieved quite smoothly. ''It's like coming down on a big landing strip at a real low angle,'' McGrane observes. ''The impact isn't much greater than that of jumping off a bench only a few feet high.