Flight of the Finns

The higher they soar, the harder they fall
February 07, 1994

The young ones are the best. The microbes of doubt haven't yet infected their minds, and perhaps 90% of the exercise is mental. But the young ones are the worst, too, precisely because they are so young—10 or 11 years old when they are discovered, 14 when they begin working with coaches from the national team, sometimes only 16 when they achieve the fame that they are so ill-equipped to deal with.

Matti Pulli knows this. It troubles him. Yet he sets aside his ambivalence and picks out the young ones just the same. As supervisor of the jumping program for the Finnish Ski Federation, Pulli is the godfather of the mother of all sports in this nation of five million people where ski jumping supplies most of the country's excitement and celebrities over the endless winters.

Finland's Matti Nykänen had not yet turned 21 when he won the gold medal on the large hill at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Four years later, in Calgary, he topped that performance by winning an unprecedented three gold medals. In Albertville in 1992, 16-year-old Toni Nieminen became the youngest Winter Olympics gold medalist ever, winning on the large hill and in the team competition. The prodigy of the moment is Janne Ahonen, who could win a medal in Lillehammer even though he, too, is only 16. Pulli has been like a father to all of them. His own daughter, Terhi, had wanted to become a physical education teacher and now sits in a wheelchair as a result of a peculiarly polar calamity, a car accident involving a moose. But these adoptive sons of his can fly.

In its preference for the slightly built, the young and the fearless, ski jumping is to boys what gymnastics is to girls. Think of Pulli as Bela Karolyi drained of the schmaltz and more aware of the limits of his influence. Pulli has never been a jumper. But while teaching phys ed at a high school in Jyväskylä, he began to coach Finland's original enfant terrible, the legendary Nykänen, when Matti Nukes was 14 years old. Pulli once said of his prodigy something that might be said about anyone who can leap off a mountainside and do more than survive but that applies most acutely to the Finns who do so: "With Matti you have to know where the genius stops and the lunatic starts."

View a ski jumping competition and the thoughts occur to you. You would have to be drunk. (From USA Today International: "A new government study shows Finnish teenagers...drink to get drunk. Ten percent of Finnish 14-year-olds get drunk at least once a month...." Finns get inebriated because they perceive that state of mind as being desirable,' said Salme Ahlstrom of the Social Research Institute of Alcoholic Studies. 'They admire it, unlike other cultures where being drunk is something to be ashamed of.'") You would have to be suicidal. (From the Associated Press: "About 1,500 of Finland's five million people commit suicide each year—28 among every 100,000 Finns. Every fourth teenage death is a suicide, the Social and Health Ministry reports.... Among males aged 15 to 24, Finland has the world's highest rate—40 suicides for every 100,000.") Maybe you just have to be Finnish.

Perhaps the winter air, so fresh and bracing, stirs in Finns a connoisseurship—the desire to find oxygen that's rarer still, ungasped by other mortals. "Finnish culture is very different from, for instance, Japanese, where the people are used to talking with and living with each other," says Pulli. "If a Finn walks into a restaurant and there are a couple of people at one table, he'll want to sit as far away as possible."

Maybe after a history of being swapped back and forth between the Swedes and the Russians—Finland won its independence in 1917 but for decades was tied not only geographically but also politically to the Kremlin—the Finns have an unrequited desire to be free.

Or perhaps the Finnish language—a maddening tongue in which every other word, in the manner of the names of heavy-metal bands, comes sprinkled seemingly indiscriminately with umlauts—tells them things it doesn't tell anyone else. If you're inclined to learn any Finnish at all, learn this: The words for bravery (urhea) and sport (urheilu) are virtually the same.

"There is this macho thing behind it," says Juhani Heikkilä, who covers jumping for the Finnish News Agency. "Austrians, they have their high places, so they aren't afraid of heights. But we don't have any mountains. Maybe it's the tradition of snow, of individualism, of showing courage. And, yes, we are very stubborn."

Once a year the federation gathers elite 14-to 16-year-olds for a training camp to identify the handful of jumpers who will prepare for the World Junior Championships and the national team. That is the extent of the method in this harvest of champions; Pulli and coach Kari Ylianttila do their reaping with scythes, not a John Deere. Scour the tundra for a chain of state-supported jumping schools, for some bunker where people in lab coats suck marrow from young jumpers' bones or graft invisible flaps onto skis, and you'll come across nothing but reindeer tracks. "Finns are the closest thing we have in the modern day to what the Indians were," says Jeff Hastings of the U.S., who finished fourth on the large hill in the 1984 Olympics and coached the American team in 1988. "They live completely in the moment. Whether this is from the length of the winters or the really intense sun of the summers, they just go for it. There is no program. There are just a million skiers. Besides the handful on the World Cup circuit, there are 400 in the woods who could break out their skis on a moment's notice and kick your ass. Every year there's one who comes screaming out of nowhere. Matti Pulli tries to pretend that it's this organized thing, that he has control, but he doesn't. It's like rolling dice. It's going to come up snake eyes eventually."

Finns cherish the sport. When the world's top jumpers compete in four events over eight days during New Year's week, at the storied four hills competition in Austria and Germany, Finnish families sit around the living room and watch each broadcast, as if these were so many Alpine bowl games. "The tradition is very important," says Heikkil‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ü. "In Lahti and Rovaniemi, in Jyv‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üskyl‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ü and Kuopio, the clubs there nurture the tradition and don't let it die. Matti Nukes, Toni Nieminen—they are idols, and idols make it easier for everyone else."

Nykänen once described jumping as a way of briefly leaving the world for a place where he can't be bothered. "But he said he is also a little bit afraid," says Pulli. "It's a certain type of drug. There is confidence, and there is fear."

Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen didn't merely win in Sarajevo and Calgary. His ungainly form, a sort of flail-and-sail, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach, forced jumping officials to completely rethink the way they awarded style points. The judges couldn't very well say, It's quite nice that you just flew farther than any mortal has ever flown, but next time try to look a little better doing it. In 1985, in the more perilous sport of ski flying, he set a world record of 191 meters. (Put in a familiar unit of measure, that's more than two football fields.) Imagine Bob Beamon crossed with Edwin Moses—an athlete who could not only rip off one millennial leap but also replicate his success year after year—and you have a sense of Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen's standing in the sport through the 1980s.

There is the suspicion that Nykänen would have to be crazy to do some of the things he does. He once trashed a disco in Austria after winning a competition. He received a suspended sentence for looting a kiosk for beer and cigarettes. He has fathered three children by three women, none of whom is currently married to. And he has a well-chronicled problem with alcohol. Part of Finnish legend is the jumping Pietikaine brothers, Atto, Matti and Lauri, all of whom died after their careers were over, all in accidents in which alcohol was a suspected factor. "In the '50s it was not at all scientific," says Jouko Tormänen, who won the gold medal on the large hill in 1980. "It was simply men who were very brave. A drink before? Some schnapps? Some, for sure." But "some" hasn't always been an option for Nykänen.

Twice coaches sent Matti Nukes home from an event for his scapegrace behavior. The public couldn't understand this, nor could they understand Pulli's discipline of his star pupil. Pulli was demonized for his efforts and even received death threats. Sometimes Pulli's strictness would cause Nykänen to fire him as his coach, yet the two always seemed to circle back to one another. "In top sports you have to have such tension," Pulli says. "If everything is going very calm, it isn't good."

Maybe the relationship kept Nykänen on a competitive edge. But for two years now Pulli and Nykänen haven't worked together except for brief consultations about the newfangled V-style of jumping that has revolutionized the sport. Nykänen says he is working hard to learn it. trying to divine its aerodynamic secrets in a wind tunnel, although this is a little bit like asking James Joyce to go back and rewrite Ulysses in Farsi. Meanwhile, he says he hopes to be in good condition by this summer even though he hasn't won a major event in five years and wasn't a competitor in Albertville. He didn't come close to qualifying for Lillehammer.

In a symbiosis that allowed Matti Nukes to subsist until recently, a magazine called 7 Päivää ("7 Days") sponsored him, paying for access and interviews as well as training. The magazine needed him to jump so the public would still hunger for news about him, allowing the magazine to play up the latest development in his life; the athlete needed the magazine's money because, even in Finland, not even Nykänen can make a living on jumping alone. But the deal was ended in December because, according to the magazine, Nykänen's drinking problem kept him from competing enough to make the arrangement worthwhile. And sure enough, without the financial help of the magazine Nykänen began selling his Olympic medals.

"He is of that group where one is too few and two is too many," says Heikkilä, who says Nykänen has tried a variety of treatments, including laughing gas, to subdue his alcohol problems. "He's not arrogant. He's actually humble in-a way. He's so very polite, a gentleman when he's sober. That's why the girls like him. But after the first beer.... What will happen in five years? It's possible he's not alive in five years. Say he gets in a fight with someone with a knife. That wouldn't be so far-fetched an ending to this story."

Like many Finnish jumpers, Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen is a high school dropout. If any young jumper could be kept earthbound long enough to crack a book, he would be most likely to do so after the snow melted. But now there's a jumping circuit in the summer, too, on plastic mats. Besides, school teaches reason and restraint, which arc of no use to a jumping fool. "In this sport everything is right here," says Hastings, pointing to his temples. "What sorts jumpers out is the ability to keep a foot on the pedal right through the whole takeoff. There's this little blind area you come out of, where you begin to pull the whole thing together—but a slight survival instinct kicks in, and you hesitate, and you lose maybe a nanosecond, and the jump can fall apart. Matti had no blind spot. His foot was to the floor right through."

A ski jumper can learn the ways of the earthbound or remain a bird. The last time Hastings saw Matti Nukes jump was at the 1991 worlds in Predazzo, Italy. "He hesitated that one little second," says Hastings, "and that made him human. He'd been educated. In Indian-speak, he'd seen the demons."

If the demons got Nykänen, no one is sure what claimed Nieminen. There's wide suspicion that his run two winters ago was a fluke, attributable in part to upheaval in the sport. In the months leading up to the '92 Olympics it became clear that the V-style was superior to its classical counterpart. The V allowed a jumper to sail five or more meters farther. But most of the older jumpers were reluctant to unlearn the classical style, and that opened up the competition to the kids who were willing to experiment. In a V-style jump the takeoff is crucial, and Nieminen, a former gymnast, was best at sensing the moment of flight and throwing himself out over his skis.

But by last season almost everyone had solved the V-style. Nieminen's advantage largely evaporated. Meanwhile, the strain of the post-Olympic whoopee began showing up. He spent much of the year out of shape, threatening intermittently to quit, trying in vain to recapture his feel for the takeoff. Unthinkably, only 24 months after winning two gold medals at the Albertville Games, Nieminen failed to make the team for Lillehammer.

Nieminen's problem isn't Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen's. And Nieminen denies that a fall at the end of the '92 season planted even the germ of a seed of some doubt that might be addling him still. "Technically the problem is as always—timing on the takeoff," he says.

The real problem, Pulli and many others suspect, is the car. After the Olympics, Toyota, Nieminen's sponsor, gave him a $50,000, four-wheel-drive Celica Turbo. There was one glitch: Nieminen couldn't use it because the driving age in Finland is 18. Yet such was his fame and status that the government gave him dispensation to drive anyway, to and from training and competitions in his hometown of Lahti.

Nieminen put more than 7,500 miles on the car the first month. Local police began tailing him to be sure he was complying with the restrictions, and Nieminen went on TV to complain about the surveillance. "If you deduct the mileage to and from training, Toni must have spent six hours a day to drive that many miles," says Pulli.

When he first looked down an inrun, Nieminen once said, he felt fear—until he strapped on his skis. "The skis," he explained, "become part of the body." There are some who suspect that the feel of bucket seats and a 200-horsepower engine insinuated its way into Nieminen's bones, chasing out the finely calibrated sense of his own chassis that had served him so well.

Today Nieminen only remotely resembles the innocent of two years ago. The tops of his blushed cheeks have hardened around the cheekbones. His voice has fallen an octave. A teammate remarks that Toni is less inclined to smile. Nieminen has gone from Michael J. Fox to Sean Penn in two very long, short years. "I feel like the same person, but of course I've learned a lot," he says. "When you do well, you have so many friends. When you don't, for even a short time, there are so many backstabbers. But the good thing is that this tells you who your real friends are.

"When I quit, I'll quit entirely," he adds. "I'm trying to get myself a profession, because there is life after ski jumping."

But Nieminen isn't going to school now, and Pulli expects him to struggle through the transition to the real world. "For Toni's coming life, all of these problems are a good thing," says Pulli. "They help him realize that there will be difficulties."

Who's next in line? Probably Ahonen. He won the World Junior Championships a year ago, and last summer, only weeks after turning 16, placed 15th at the worlds. "I'm so young, my strength will surely improve," says Ahonen. "I've recognized the problems Matti and Toni have had. But my own opinion of myself is that if I might someday have success like those guys, I'll overcome those problems."

The town of Rovaniemi has made a career of where it sits, a distance from the Arctic Circle that Nykänen in his prime could have covered in a routine jump. Tourists see Laplanders running errands downtown in costume. A seasonal boiler-room operation mails letters from Santa Claus to children around the world. With the mountains dusted white by mid-November, Rovaniemi hosts ski jumping's annual First Snow Competition.

This season Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen showed up wearing a single earring and a washed-out look. Earlier, in the provincial town of Kajaani, he had thrown a fit upon being refused service in a restaurant, and the doorman had to use a mild tear gas to subdue him. (It is quite an odyssey, the Matti Nukes story—from laughing gas to tear gas.) Nyk‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ünen's first jump isn't good enough to qualify him for the final round. He is the only one not to use the V-style, although his is no classical jump, but a flying leap—Matti Nukes, up in the air, boogie-boarding this way and that, looking for a wave only he can find. He finishes 88th among 106 jumpers, a result that on another day might touch off a jag, but in today's blue and fading light fails to affect his curiously jovial mood. He signs autographs. He speaks with a TV journalist. He poses with a man in a 7 P‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üiv‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ü‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ü parka.

"I like the atmosphere," Nykänen says, speaking not of Rovaniemi in particular but of the arena of competition. "The backstabbers aren't here. I can be free here. Not so out there, where there is always bad publicity." He talks of next summer and next season, by which time, he promises, he'll have mastered the V-style. "I need more toughness," he says. "And more push on the takeoff."

Nieminen won't qualify for the second round, either. Even his 16-year-old brother, Sami, outjumped him in the junior competition earlier this afternoon. Nieminen schlepps off, disgusted but unhassled, the familiar problems of timing on the takeoff there to keep him company.

Veteran international jumpers are here too—among them Espen Bredesen, the 26-year-old Norwegian who will be the favorite in Lillehammer, and Jens Weissflog of Germany, 29, who won an Olympic gold 10 years ago—but Ahonen leads the competition halfway through. He winds up second only because a 24-year-old Czech named Jaroslav Sakala refuses to let this upstart beat him. Five boys corner Ahonen for his autograph.

The state of Finnish ski jumping is laid out here in tableaux. The greatest of all time, the man who defined the jump, must conform to someone else's redefinition of it now that he has hit 30. The teen idol, who not two years ago forced World Cup organizers to erect extra fencing to keep squealing girls at bay, is ignored at 18. The 16-year-old phenom signs autographs for kids who could probably beat him up if he were to refuse.

They speak incessantly of push and timing on the takeoff, these Finns. They parse the takeoff and dissect it. But none seems to know much of the comfort of a smooth landing.

PHOTOMIKE POWELLAhonen, the next king of the hill, believes he can avoid a dizzying descent. TWO PHOTOSMIKE POWELLThe air was alive with skis and V's all summer when Ahonen and others used green plastic mats in place of snow. PHOTOMATTI MATIKAINEN/LEHTIKUVA OY/SABAFar removed from his glory days, when he won three golds at the 1988 Olympics, Nykänen has tried laughing gas to treat his drinking. PHOTOJERRY COOKE[See caption above.] PHOTOARI-VEIKKO PELTONEN/LEHTIKUVA OY/SABAPulli pushes the prodigies along. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONNieminen, who won twice in '92, didn't make it to Lillehammer. ILLUSTRATION

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)