Technically, what a ski jumper does when he soars from the takeoff to the outrun below is called the "ride," but spectators who watch jumping infrequently find that concept hard to grasp. A ride is what you get in a plane or a car; a jump is a jump.
Says U.S. Nordic Director Jim Page:
"There are two startling visual impacts. First, when a jumper leaves the takeoff there's a sensation that he's rising into the air. He isn't. The edge of the takeoff isn't curled up; it's straight. And then, all through the ride, spectators instinctively fear that any second the jumper will plunge some 35 stories to his death. Another illusion. Actually, while cruising along, the jumper is seldom more than seven to 10 feet off the ground. He's following the carefully engineered parabolic curve of the hill The object is to stay in the air as long as possible to cover the most horizontal distance And all of it takes place in something less than four seconds."
In world and Olympic competition, the jumps come in two sizes: 90 meters and 70 meters, usually adjacent to each other. The numbers refer not to the height of those awesome towers but to the distance from takeoff to a "norm," a landing point about two-thirds of the way down the hill—295 feet on the big jump, 230 feet on the small one The idea is to float somewhere past the norm down to the next line, the so-called critical point—usually painted in red—just above the point where the hill starts to flatten out To win says Page "You must jump to—and a bit beyond—the red line."
The uninformed spectator half hopes to see competitors catch the right breeze and jump right off the world—beyond the outrun and past the crowd, somewhere out there among the Ovomaltine stands. But, no. If the athletes get to flying too far, the meet is stopped and the starting point is adjusted, deliberately shortening the jumps in the interest of safety.
The incomparable Maui Nyk√§nen caused this to happen at the Pre-Olympic meet in Sarajevo last February by soaring off the 90-meter hill to a stunning 390 feet, 23 feet beyond the red-lined critical point. Officials halted the meet, made an adjustment, and had everybody start again. Nyk√§nen then jumped 374 feet and won anyway.
The scoring takes place at the critical line, based on a 60-point table. Points are subtracted for landing short, added for going beyond the line. Then come so-called style points: Each of the five judges can add up to 20 points for jumping form. (The scores of only three judges are actually counted; the high and low marks, as in figure skating, are thrown out.) But since the longest jumper usually wins the meet the style points can be a bit puzzling Says Page: "If you get the longest ride then it can only be assumed you're showing the best form and the judges usually score it that way."
Since each hill has a personality all its own, distances vary, but Page figures this is what you can expect to see at Sarajevo: "The winners will be hitting about 90 meters off the 70-meter hill—that is, about 295 feet. On the big hill they'll be riding out to 115 meters or so, 377 feet."
But for all its technicalities, ski jumping is still among the best of Olympic events to watch. U.S. jumper Jeff Hastings says participating is even better. "It's that flying feeling, the sense of defying gravity for a few seconds, that hooks you," he says. "There's a special mystique and glamour to jumping. That's because of the secret: Everybody thinks it's dangerous. But it isn't."