COVER

FLIGHT OF THE FINN

BOB LEVIN February 29 1988
COVER

FLIGHT OF THE FINN

BOB LEVIN February 29 1988

FLIGHT OF THE FINN

COVER

Airborne, his bright blue suit stark against a grey sky, Matti Nykänen soared out over Canada Olympic Park, as though rocket-pro-

pelled. He leaned over his skis, his helmeted head thrust forward. He seemed to go on and on, floating. The crowd, numbering some 50,000 strong, gasped audibly, then roared as the Flying Finn finally returned to earth a stunning 89.5 m from the takeoff of the ski jump tower. That equalled his first effort of the day and, in ski jumping’s complex scoring system in which the judges also award style points, topped his nearest competitor by a startling 17 points. Pumping his fist triumphantly in the air, Nykänen was immediately mobbed by his teammates, while other countrymen waved blue-and-white Finnish flags and chanted “Matti, Matti.”

Conquest: Nykänen’s shattering gold medal performance in the 70-m event overshadowed a fine showing by Czechoslovakia’s Pavel Ploc and Jiri Malee, who took the silver and bronze respectively. Steve Collins of Thunder Bay, Ont., finished 13th, Canada’s best-ever Olympic result in the 70 m, highlighting an impressive comeback after a year off resulting from self-confessed burnout. “I’m pretty happy with it,” said Collins. Gusty winds postponed both the 90-m team competition—a new event for the Olympics—and the individual 90-m event until this week, leaving the 24-year-old Nykänen to savor his conquest.

The Finnish phenomenon, who also captured a gold and silver at Sarajevo in 1984, is expected to become the first jumper ever to win both 70-m and 90-m golds. And combined with his sizable lead on this year’s World Cup circuit, he is on the verge of establishing his unquestioned supremacy in the skies. “In

my mind,” said Finnish head coach Matti Pulli, “he’s now the best jumper ever in the world.” Told of what his coach said, the notoriously temperamental Nykänen, his blond hair combed straight down above a baby face, smiled slightly and said, “That’s a nice thing to hear from him.”

Alcohol: The son of a taxi driver from the Finnish ski jumping haven of Jyväskylä, Nykänen took up the daunt-

ing sport when he was 9. At 19, he finished first in the overall 1983 World Cup standings, then repeated the feat in 1985 and 1986. But with his emotional tirades and an alcohol problem, he eventually flew hell-bent into trouble. A year ago at Innsbruck, Austria, his team suspended him for drinking. With an injured knee, he dropped to sixth in the World Cup standings. “He was a little bit of a jerk,” said Canadian national coach Willi Pürstl. “He was like a child—one day up, one day down.” But over the past year, Pürstl added, Nykänen has become “a really

good person.” Finnish team officials credit his 1986 marriage and the birth of a son last summer with helping him to settle down, giving him a sense of responsibility. “He’s a happy husband and a happy father now,” said team chaplain Göran Hellberg. “And he’s very confident.”

After Nykänen’s first electrifying leap off the 70-m jump last week, coach Pulli said that he was positive no competitor could catch him in the second round. “You’d have to be an angel to jump so far,” said Pulli. Experts offer assorted opinions on why Nykänen has become so dominant. Pulli stresses that his slender frame and strong legs are ideal for ski jumping, and that, as he hurtles down the ramp at almost 90 km/h, he gets a nearperfect takeoff. Nykänen himself, not given to making long pronouncements to the press, says only that he practised harder this year. “I have trained during the worst of conditions and a lot this summer,” said the frequent flyer. But he added, “I find it pretty hard i to say what the secret

Fragile: Whatever it is, Nykänen has become a national hero in Finland. “The older women love him especially,” said Juhani Heikkila, who covers ski jumping for Finland’s STT news agency. “He seems so so fragile. Everyone his mother.” Pulli ac-

sympathetic, wants to be knowledges that Nykänen is still temperamental. But he adds: “You have to be temperamental if you want to be good. We have very nice sportsmen in Finland. They are so polite. But they can’t win the gold medal, that’s the point.” At Canada Olympic Park last week, Nykänen, winging high and far, went a long way to proving a point: that he is the most fearsome fly-boy of them all.

BOB LEVIN in Calgary