With ski jumping (or ski-flying, as it is also known) taking place at Whistler Olympic Park (WOP) recently, I'm reminded of how much this sport has always fascinated me. Weaned on the 1970s Saturday afternoon show CBC Sports Weekend that often included live broadcasts from the Big Thunder jumps in Thunder Bay, and later having written several articles about these human projectiles more reminiscent of Icarus than skiers, I learned more about the discipline than I was aware there was to learn. And since we will always be fascinated with any activity that involves humans catapulting through thin air, it's worth revisiting the theme from time to time.
Ski jumping has a long tradition in Europe. Long enough that it was the main attraction in the first known ski competitions held in Norway's Telemark region back in the 1860s. With turning in its infancy in these early affairs, straight-running style and jumping prowess were the essence of any contest. Even when slalom became part of the program, jumps remained an important component — with up to 10 different launches set into the same run. Naturally, the further one flew the better, and it was really that spectacle in particular that drew crowds to these first matches, crowds that always included — as any spectacle should — the king and queen of the day and their entourage.
Original jumping forms were a little different than today, but not unfamiliar to most skiers. Most people jumped in the "drawn-up" style, with legs in a crouch position while they flew. On landing, they bent one knee while keeping one ski in front of the other, a natural landing position that provided maximum balance. This so-called "Telemark landing" was and remains the most stable platform on free-heeled skis. Even modern jumpers will have up to two points deducted from their total style points if they fail to execute a Telemark landing well enough. The style of jumping changed to the familiar upright position around 1880, with body leaned slightly forward and the skier using gentle arm movements to maintain balance (we might call it "windmilling"). With airplanes and true flight decades away, aerodynamics weren't a huge part of the equation; thus, while in the air, skis were slanted downwards toward the end of the jump in order to ensure a landing parallel to the ground.
Though original competitions paired downhill ski-running with jumping (cross-country was just developing in the 1860s), by 1895 combined cross-country and jumping events had gained the upper hand, even though there was still usually some gate-turning included in the cross-country course. But the two disciplines were also now run as separate events, and specialized skis for jumping were in widespread use, despite much protest from some local ski clubs. As late as 1900 the Norwegian Ski Association rejected a proposal of a mandatory single pair of skis for both events, paving the way for the classic format of Nordic Combined that persists today. The eventual close association of the two free-heeled disciplines was assured with the development of heel bindings and the divergence and rise of Alpine skiing in the early 1900s.
Ski jumping as first debuted in the winter Olympics in 1924 was a men-only event consisting of two jumps, the 90- and 120-metre, based on the distance from the point of takeoff to the landing area. Scandinavians, Germans and Eastern Europeans are consistent winners in this sport, and are usually in the fore; Canada has never really come close to an overall title or being an Olympic medal contender, though Horst Bulau of Gloucester, Ont. won 13 World Cup events in the early '80s (Thunder Bay's Steve Collins also won a jump in there somewhere).
In the 1992 Albertville Olympics, Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined shared the same venue at Courcheval, located, like many events there, a long distance from the main staging area. Despite this, considerably more attention was paid jumping than usual, as those Olympics marked the debut of widespread use of a new technique — the "flying V" — and rule changes designed to accommodate it. Since then, the V-style, where ski tips are flared wide to form an inverted triangle that's more aerodynamic than the traditional parallel platform, has taken over the sport. Pioneered in competition by Sweden's J. Boklov, judges were appalled when they first saw it, summarily deducting style points. But since only 20 per cent of the overall score for a particular jump are given for aesthetics, many jumpers elected to use the new style anyway, since it allowed them to sail that much farther.
The FIS was eventually forced to react, rewriting the rule so there were no mandatory deductions, and a maximum of only 1.5 points could be chopped for using the V. As usual the FIS was taken by surprise that a sport around for over a century suddenly underwent a major revolution. But they shouldn't have been because revolution is the flagship of history.