'Swiss Air': The ski jumper who astonished himself

HE flattened his body between his v-shaped skis until he was flying almost at the horizontal. The sight was unearthly. His arms were pinned to his sides and he sailed and sailed through the western sky like some helmeted Superman, his nose between his ski tips until ...

Superman finally plunked to earth and stood revealed as the carryout boy from the corner Safeway. That is not exactly how Simon Ammann is carried in the official dossiers of the 2002 Winter Olympics. But it is how his face and his adolescent exuberance are going to be remembered by the enthralled thousands who rimmed the ski-jump landing zone and by the TV millions. What they're unlikely to forget is not so much his unheralded dual gold medals in the 90K and again in Wednesday's 120K ski jumping. It is the pure and unguarded astonishment in the eyes and yelping voice of a 20-year-old Swiss mountain kid discovering that he was, gulp, an Olympic champion.

What was it like, Simon? "It felt so GOOD! I knew right away after takeoff that this was the jump! I am trembling. There are no words for this. I was so nervous. After takeoff I was flying away. It has been a crazy day. A crazy week. I never would have believed that I could be the champion. In the air, and now, it is such a good feeling."

And how far, Simon?

Well, you don't do the conversions floating above the snow, trying to keep your body inert yet straining for a few more meters, a few more inches, and trying to look pretty all of the time for the style points. The computers recorded the distance on that jump at 133 meters, which means well over 430 feet.

Was this something out of Mother Goose and Aesop's Fables, Simon? It was close to that because here was a yodeling kid from the Alps who came back from a crash landing last month out of nowhere. And when they did all of the tabulations he was ahead of the great jumpers like Adam Malysz of Poland and Sven Hannawald of Germany and Matti Hautamaeki of Finland. And now, for the rest of his life they are going to call him what suddenly became the catchiest nom de plume of the Olympics: "Swiss Air."

Clearly there are more heroic figures than Simon Amman in this quadrennial feast of speed and reckless quest mixed in with the usual intrigue of suspected skullduggery in figure skating. But if you missed all the rest and saw only the kid from Switzerland soaring into the Olympic history books, and then blinking and flapping his arms to convince himself that it was real, you saw enough to make the 2002 Olympics indelible.

Sometimes it's good to remind ourselves that these are not, after all, super men and women. They are human beings of remarkable skills and strength but frailer than most emotionally - because of their huge commitment of ego and ambition, and because the competition at their level of performance is so relentless. When you're tempted to forget that, a Simon Amman emerges to restore the Olympics, just momentarily, to the innocence and the ideal that it lost somewhere between billion-dollar budgets and the old olive groves of Greece a few thousand years ago.

Yet the average gawker on the slopes and in the streets of Salt Lake City isn't really put off by the round-the-clock carnival of it. If you're willing to pay hundreds of dollars to watch an ice show, you're not going to spend a lot of time stewing about the alleged bribery and the political pork-barreling that brought it here. Half way through it, you can ask the question, is the show worth it? Is it worth the 15,000 security people, the thousands of media and the boondoggling that landed it? Is it worth the merciless media grilling of the International Ski Union bureaucrat who had to defend the skate judging establishment while admitting it probably needs an overhaul? He did it with some spunk and humor, which gave him passing grades for doggedness - a quality that will take you a long way if you have to deal with media by the thousands.

Yes, it's worth it. It is, because there are moments of genuine nobility in it, from an extraordinary athlete like speedskater Casey FitzRandolph to the grinding, against-all-odds cross-country skiers. There are flashes of impetuosity and raw braggadaccio from the snowboarders, of heartbreak for the stars who fail or who get caught in the trainwreck of shorttrack racing. You can get turned off by the rock concert atmospherics of the downtown medal awards but you know that Kwan and Slutskaya are still ahead, as is the US versus Russia and Canada in hockey. But you might not see another Simon Amman, flying at you from outer space on skis, with big eyes and no cape.

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