WAY ABOVE IT ALL

Matti Nykänen of Finland added to an already lusty legend by easily outdistancing the other Olympic competitors in the 70-meter ski jump
February 22, 1988

The good ski jumpers talk about air—dead air, good air. The great ones merely fly on it. And as he proved on Sunday afternoon at Canada Olympic Park, there's one great ski jumper today, a jumper for all times named Matti Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen, Finland's sometime bad boy of the sport.

The 24-year-old Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen—a.k.a. Matti Nukes—won the 70-meter competition by 17 points, a margin greater than that which separated second place from 10th. He soared 294 feet on his first jump, the longest of the round and 3.3 feet shy of the hill record set in 1986 by Ingo Lesser of East Germany. On his second jump, despite a following wind that had blown up, creating the dead, or empty, air that's the bane of lesser ski jumpers, Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen duplicated that distance—again the best of the round.

The scene was much the same for both jumps. As the crowd chanted "Go! Go! Go!" and blue-and-white Finnish flags were held aloft in the breeze, Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen gathered himself at the top of the inrun, checked the wind and started down the ramp in his crouch. At the bottom he exploded or took flight or did something that no one can quite put a finger on. This much we know: Speed is not the secret of Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen's success. His speed at takeoff—54.8 mph on his first jump, 54 on his second—was slower than the average of the 58 jumpers in the competition. Some say the key is the quickness with which Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen gets his body into a perfect forward lean after takeoff; he has done it in as little as .12 of a second. Some say it is his physique; Nukes is 5'10" and wide-shouldered but weighs only 132 pounds, making his upper body a sort of flesh-and-blood spinnaker on which he is able to sail. Some say his bones are hollow, like a bird's. Whatever the reason, Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen is on a different level from the rest of the best in the world, and the 52,000 people watching him Sunday gasped as he floated and floated and finally touched down, punching his fists into the air in triumph. Asked how Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen did it, Mark Konopacke, the top American finisher (18th), said, "No idea. But he's himself again."

Let's hope not. That is to say, let's hope that Nykänen is right when he insists he isn't the same old hell-raising, disco-bashing Nukes who so alienated teammates and coaches with his boorish arrogance that twice he has been suspended from the national team. "Matti has grown up a lot in the past year," says Matti Pulli, 53, his coach since the mid-'70s. "I have complete control over him now. It's like a miracle."

Nykänen has been infamously irascible ever since 1982, when at 18 he burst into international prominence by winning the 90-meter title at Oslo's prestigious Holmenkollen. He won the first of his three World Cup titles in 1983, and then won gold and silver medals in the 90 meters and 70 meters, respectively, at the 1984 Olympics. In 1985 in Planecia, Czechoslovakia, he soared a world-record 627 feet in ski flying, ski jumping's more dangerous cousin.

Despite his successes, Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen was very much the angry young man. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade—and devoted his life to jumping. He climbed the rickety tower of the 35-meter hill in his hometown of Jyv‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üskyl‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ü to make as many as 60 jumps a day. Jumping was in him. No one could teach him more than he innately knew or had discovered through trial and error. Always curt and abrasive with reporters, he was also rude and imperious with his coaches, the impetuous prodigy. His way was not just the right way, it was the only way. He became a great jumper, but he was also immature, self-centered, intolerant and insufferable.

This side of him first came to light in December 1985 at a World Cup event in Thunder Bay, Ont., when his excessive drinking and poor rapport with his teammates were widely reported in the Finnish press. When the team returned home, Nykänen was, as punishment, banned by his national ski association from competing in the '86 Vierschanzentournee, a 90-meter event held early in January in four Austrian and West German cities. Unchastened, in March of that year, after the closing banquet of the World Ski Flying Championships in Kulm, Austria, Nykänen trashed a local discotheque. That summer he received a two-month suspended sentence for pilfering cigarettes and beer from a kiosk in Vuokatti, the town in which the Finnish team trains.

Nykänen wed fashion model Tiina Hassinen in December 1986, but any thought that married life would settle him down was soon dashed. First he was sent home from a World Cup meet in Lake Placid for sleeping through a training session. In January 1987, Nykänen demanded that he be allowed to bring Tiina along on that year's Vierschanzentournee. Having one's wife or girlfriend on a team trip isn't allowed, but Nykänen petulantly threatened to boycott the trip if the rule wasn't waived for him. Finally a Finnish magazine offered to pick up Tiina's expenses, and the ski association gave permission for her to go along. But Nukes's teammates refused to allow her on the team bus, and the newlyweds traveled from one city to the next by taxi.

The Finnish coaches, determining that Nykänen's attitude was undermining team morale, finally sent him home, whereupon Nykänen took Tiina on a honeymoon. They went to Sri Lanka for two weeks, courtesy of another publication, the gossip magazine Seura, which reported their every coo and snuggle to an adoring public. "Nykänen is the most popular sports figure in Finland," says Seura editor Isto Lysmä. "We sell a lot of magazines when we feature Matti."

Nykänen returned from Sri Lanka just in time for the Finnish nationals in January 1987. Not surprisingly, he jumped so poorly that he failed to make the team for the upcoming world championships in Oberstdorf, West Germany. There was an outcry from Nykänen's fans, and recognizing that the Finnish team couldn't win without him, the ski association gave him a berth at the worlds. Whereupon Nukes placed second in the 70 meters and helped the Finns to the gold in the team competition. Still, it was a lost season for Nykänen, who finished in sixth place in the World Cup standings.

Then, last Oct. 1, Tiina gave birth to a son, Sami, an event that friends and Nykänen himself describe as a turning point in his life. "I have started to think about how I can give the baby a good future," he said recently. "I'm not going to do anything to mess that future up."

This season Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen has curtailed his drinking and has greatly improved his relationship with his teammates. "He gives the younger ones new boots and training help," says Pulli. "He wants good things for the team." With reporters Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen has actually been seen smiling—if not exactly bubbling over with verbal gems and warmth. He dominated the World Cup season. In the first 70-meter event, at Thunder Bay, Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen beat second-place finisher Pavel Ploc—who also got the silver on Sunday in Calgary—by a greater margin than Ploc beat his Czech teammate Martin Svagerko, who was in 14th place. (The bronze medalist on Sunday was another member of the strong Czech team, Jiri Malec.) Including Sunday's gold medal, Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen has made 12 starts this season, won nine times and finished second twice. "I did not think it was possible to be so superior," said Austrian coach Paul Ganzenhuber after Nukes won last month's Vierschanzentournee by an unprecedented 99 points.

Yet his season has not been entirely trouble-free. After his Vierschanzentournee win, Nykänen celebrated with teammates in a disco in Bischofshofen, Austria. He was, according to an observer, "maybe not quite sober" and asked one of the local girls to dance. Her Austrian friends objected, and one of them offered a bottle of schnapps to the first one who punched out Nykänen. Nukes got belted in the nose and spent the night in the hospital in Schwarzach. Although his nose was initially reported as broken, Nykänen denies it and has tried to put the affair behind him.

Which is just where he has put opponents all season. Nykänen is now the first jumper in Olympic history to win golds in both the 70-meter and 90-meter jumps, and should he triumph in the 90 meters, he will, of course, be the first to have won both in the same Olympics. Don't bet against it. When Nukes is on form, he is simply the best there ever was. As Pulli said of Nykänen's performance on Sunday, "To beat him was impossible. You must be an angel to jump that far."

Or Matti Nukes, who is trying to be one.

PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGE PHOTOMANNY MILLANNykänen soared 294 feet on his second jump, just as he had done on the first. PHOTOMANNY MILLANFor Nukes, the ride to the top has sometimes been lonely and has always been stormy.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)