Ski jumping requires combination of skill, finesse, and courage

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The United States has won no purely jumping medals and only one medal in the Nordic combined - a bronze in the 1924 Winter Games by Anders Haugen, a Norwegian immigrant. Because of a scoring mistake that went undetected until years later, Haugen wasn't recognized as the third-place finisher until 1974.

Ski jumping had its roots in Scandinavia, where the first man-made jump was built near Oslo more than a century ago. Not surprisingly, these countries were the sport's original superpowers. Through the Seventh Winter Games in 1956, all but two strictly jumping medals had gone to either a Norwegian, a Swede, or a Finn.

Norway's Birger Ruud, the Babe Ruth of ski jumping, won golds in 1932 and 1936, then due to wartime cancellation of the '40 and '44 Games didn't get another chance until 1948 - and even at that late stage in his career still just missed capturing a third gold at St. Moritz. The Scandinavians are still strong , of course, but can no longer dominate as they once did now that Austrians, Japanese, and East Germans have also gotten into the act. East Germany, which doesn't produce any Olympic Alpine skiers because of a lack of mountains, nonetheless has become something of a ski jumping factory via a strong youth development program.

The United States is starting to come up in the jumping world too, partly because of a year-'round training facility in Lake Placid, where lubricated plastic mats can substitite for the missing snow. Even so, Hastings says more must be done at the development level. ''We just don't have that much of a talent pool to pick from,'' he points out. ''There are probably only 200 serious ski jumpers in the United States, and maybe only 60 capable of going off the 90 -meter.''

The size of the jump refers not to its height, but to the more or less standard distance jumped off it. This is called the p point, which is 70 meters for the shorter jump and 90 meters for the taller one. The in-run gradient for Sarajevo's two jumps is actually an identical 35 degrees, but the longer ramp means greater speed on the takeoff - 57 as compared to 51 m.p.h. In this case wind and weather conditions can either aid or inhibit flight; consequently the starting point is raised or lowered so that there's seldom any danger of someone outjumping the safe landing area.

Sheer distance, while a key factor, is not the only objective. Style counts too. Thus after points are given for distance, 20 additional points can be awarded for a perfectly executed jump. Ideally, the skis land in the classic telemark position, with one slightly in front of the other.

Officials at the landing area traditionally determine a jump's length, the system being used here. But at the same time Sarajevo's Olympic officials are testing a new seismic measuring device that senses the athlete's impact on the slope.

A jumper's skis are wider and longer than those of an Alpiner, and they're also about twice as heavy (16 pounds or so) - which makes all those trips back up the mountain more laborious. But then all the work is probably worth it considering the rewards - the best seat in the ''house'' one minute and a bird's-eye view the next.

Medals won by nations Country Gold Silver Bronze Total East Germany 6 6 3 15 USSR 3 5 6 14 Finland 2 3 3 8 Norway 2 1 3 6 Sweden 2 0 1 3 United States 1 2 0 3 West Germany 1 1 0 2 Canada 1 0 1 2 Italy 1 0 0 1 Switzerland 1 0 0 1 Japan 0 1 0 1 Yugoslavia 0 1 0 1 Czechoslovakia 0 0 1 1 France 0 0 1 1 Liechtenstein 0 0 1 1

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