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Original Issue

A Flight To The Finnish

Finland's Matti Nykänen, the best ski jumper in the world, also has a temper that can soar to the heights

The morning air is purest Finnish—there's not another place in the world where the days are delivered so bitingly crisp, scrubbed clean by the winds out of Lapland. On all sides, out to the horizon, dozens of steel-blue lakes lie surrounded by thick pine forests; far below one can see the Vuokatti Sports Institute and a few farmhouses, looking like an assembly of toy log houses. This is near-wilderness; Helsinki lies 350 miles to the south. A visitor may look out in wonder, but all of this is a familiar sight to the small group of men gathered here, and they pay no attention to the scenery. Instead, there's a subcurrent of high spirits among them, a sense of occasion. At last their autumn has ended, and these Finns are back to ski-jumping full time.

Finland has traditionally been a top power in Nordic skiing, if not always in jumping: In the 45 world and Olympic championships at 90 and 70 meters since 1924, Norway has won the most, 19, and Finland is second, with seven. But since 1954 the power base has been shifting to Finland. Today, the world's premier jumper is a Finn, Matti Nykänen, and he and seven compatriots have come to this lonely training camp filled with great purpose.

The old 70-meter jump perches on the very crest of the hill. It looks exceedingly rickety, its wooden siding faded and wind-scrubbed, the entire contraption supported by an intricate spider web of rusty iron tubing. Inside the superstructure, wooden stairs go 120 feet up. At the top, one can see the small figure of a jumper. Even from a distance it's plain that he's impatient; he waves one arm vigorously and yells something that's lost in the wind. Down at the takeoff point, Niilo Halonen, the Finnish Nordic team's director, stands bundled in layers of warmups. He checks to make sure an assistant has the portable video camera ready, then turns and waves back up the hill. Finally Halonen grins. "Now you will see Matti Nykänen jump," he says.

The figure high above leaps onto the two refrigerated ski tracks, gives a sort of bounce and sinks into the jumper's familiar crouch—his weight forward, chest almost resting on his knees. The skis make a harsh rasp that grows steadily louder as they approach: when the jumper reaches the takeoff point, the clock times him at 52.7 mph. Then he uncoils into the air with a dull slap of sound.

"Watch," says Halonen.

Then comes a moment of sudden fright: This jumper is in trouble. His arms are all askew, windmilling, and his legs are apart. He seems to be crabbing into the wind like a sailboat on a bad tack. It looks as if he's going to fall out of the sky. But then, in what seems to be slow motion, things begin to happen. He pulls in his arms and holds them tightly to his sides, with his hands cupped, facing forward, to act as airfoils. His legs drift into place, his body arches over his skis, and, at last, all of the angles are precisely right, and he begins to float. He lands 279 feet below on the plastic carpeting of the out-run. The distance is routine for a practice jump—though the recovery was nothing less than spectacular.

Matti Ensio Nyk√§nen—a.k.a. Matti Nukes—is the pride of all Finland. At 20 he's clearly an original. He is the World Cup champion of 1983 and the No. 1 threat for the Winter Olympics on both the 90- and 70-meter hills. Some experts who have been watching Nyk√§nen with growing wonder since he won the world junior title at 17 say he may turn out to be the best jumper ever.

That isn't an assessment made lightly; jumpers and those around them are a most conservative breed and not given to grand predictions. But America's Jeff Hastings, the best of the U.S. jumpers and currently ranked 11th in the world, says flatly, "Matti Nukes was born to jump; the rest of us were made." Says Matti Pulli, Nyk√§nen's private coach, "I'd say he is 95% courage, and that gives him the talent to do what he does." Halonen, who won the silver medal jumping at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, says, "Matti's style is so distinctive they could all jump with bags over their heads and you'd still know it was him." Jim Page, a 1964 Olympian and now the U.S. Nordic director, adds, "Matti Nukes is incredibly aggressive at the takeoff—but not all of his parts always come along in the same sequence."

Matti Nukes. Hastings and others call him that not because of Nykänen's bombs-away style, but because it's convenient shorthand for the way the Finns pronounce his name: NUKE-an-en. Say "Nukes" to Matti himself and his response is the faintest shrug and a cold, who-the-hell-cares stare. Obviously he has only one thing on his mind.

And at this moment, at the takeoff point on this hill in Finland, Matti Nukes is furious. He's a single-minded perfectionist and the untidiness of his last jump and the one before it have irked him. Skis over his shoulder, seething all the way, he has just stamped up the 300 wooden steps on the hillside to the spot where a visitor stands. It's a terrible time for anyone to be introduced to strangers, even though the visitor has the assistance of a kindly interpreter named Ulla, a charming, white-haired woman who looks like the entire world's Mom. Nukes offers a hand that has the feel of an Atlantic salmon one might pick up in Helsinki's famed Market Square. The startling thing from up close is that he has such a baby face; he seems to be no more than 12 or so, beardless, with a pouting mouth and that wonderful, almost translucent complexion Finns have—any rush of blood creates high color in their checks. The rest of him is a jumble of elbows and hipbones and kneecaps; Nukes is 5'7", but weighs only 118 pounds. Having nodded hello, not speaking a word, he turns away abruptly and heads for the stairs to the top of the jump.

But now something puzzling happens. Suddenly there's a sense of tension in the crisp air. From one side, Halonen murmurs a few words of coaching: "Matti," he says softly, "I think perhaps you're not down far enough at the takeoff. Your crouch...." It doesn't sound like any sort of coaching that one is familiar with: Halonen is being deferential. And Matti Nukes turns on him, glaring from beneath the rim of his cap.

"Oh, really?" he says. "You think so?" His voice is brittle. "Are you quite sure? Who's doing the f—— jumping here?"

The interpreter leans over and whispers, "Matti just said a very, very bad word in Finnish."

She is told that it's a very, very bad word in English, too.

As Nykänen stalks away, his anger evident in the rigidity of his back, Halonen sighs like a wearily patient father and says, "Lest you think this behavior is strange, there's a very special reason for it. You shall find out exactly what it is when you talk to Matti himself later."

Nykänen's next takeoff is perfect: He soars effortlessly toward the faraway blue lakes, settling down at 243 feet as easily as a falling leaf. Everyone on the hilltop sighs in relieved appreciation. And while waiting to talk to Matti Nukes, one has plenty of time to reflect on the unique forces that have made him this way: a driven, angry young man who happens to be the best ski jumper in the world.

Nykänen comes from Jyväskylä, a town some 170 miles north of Helsinki, where on winter days it must seem that the sky is full of falling Finns. Several ski jumps of various sizes dot the community, but the pride of the region is the 90-meter hill, a structure that Jyväskylä kids play on as if it were a giant jungle gym. Winters in mid-Finland are bitter and long, and the Jyväskylä junior jumping program is highly organized. "Every other man in town seems to be a coach," says Pulli, who has taught Nykänen for the past eight years. "At first, I was just looking at Matti in wonder, he was so good. He was always ahead of his age group."

Matti was given a pair of tiny jumping skis at nine and he was competing by the time he was 11, perhaps the lightest and smallest of his group. "But even then," says Pulli, "I could tell that he would be the best." Which also means, in a way, the most reckless: Nyk√§nen's hell-bent style showed up even at swimming class, where he was given to diving off the five-meter board in ski-jumper style—headfirst, with his arms firmly at his sides. But perhaps the most telling episode of his earliest jumping escapades was this: Nyk√§nen's parents knew their son all too well and had been fearful of what he might attempt Sure enough, one evening when he was 14 he left a note on the kitchen table. "Please, Dad, don't be angry," it said, "but today I did 88 meters [289 feet] off the big jump [the 90-meter hill]."

Still, that was just play; the great gains came a couple of years later when Nyk√§nen got a job with the city parks department—he was assigned to help groom the big hill. The job was important because the Nyk√§nens aren't a wealthy family. Matti's dad, Ensio, is a cab driver. His mom, Vieno, works as a clerk at a gift shop. Matti has three sisters, one of them married. "Matti didn't just work on the jump—he lived on it," says Pulli. "He spent every bit of daylight there and on into the evenings. This sounds incredible, but I swear he made some 60 jumps a day. That's more than 2,500 jumps a season. And that's if that's what sets him apart from all the others now."

But there's a slightly sad side effect: Nyk√§nen was so obsessed that he constantly skipped school to go jumping; at one point he flunked a grade and had to repeat it. After nine years of angrily mixing school and truancy, that was it for Matti Nukes. For what it's worth—which is obviously not much in terms of his international standing—Nyk√§nen now has difficulty reading.

By 1981, Matti Nukes was both the Finnish 90-meter and junior world champ. First time out as a senior, in 1982, he won the 90-meter jump at Oslo's celebrated Holmenkollen and ended the year with the top national ranking in Finland. Last season, a world-championship off-year, he swept just about everything available: the Intersport Springertournee, the four-meet jumping circus in Switzerland that's regarded as the most important event of the year; the Sarajevo Pre-Olympics at 90 meters; and the World Cup series, winding up the 26-event Cup season with a 17-point lead over Canada's Horst Bulau.

When the Finnish team returned in triumph from the Holmenkollen last year, the proud fathers of Jyv√§skyl√§ presented Nukes with a lifetime job with the city parks department—promising as much time off for jumping as he needs without deducting it from his pay—and there was talk of building him a house in town as a gift.

Evening comes early to the Sports Institute at Vuokatti: The eight jumpers-in-residence drive themselves relentlessly like some lonely new breed of Nordic Spartans. This is the last of three off-season camps. When it ends the competitive season begins; in the 10 weeks between now and Sarajevo, the Finnish A-team will have just one week off. There are two long workouts a day on the hill at Vuokatti, and between jumps each man trudges up the 300 steps carrying 35 pounds of skis over his shoulder. Then comes still another hillside and, finally, that long, forbidding stairwell up through the inside of the structure to the starting ramps—200 more steps. Understandably, there's not much banter; only the best five or six here will make the Finnish jumping team for Sarajevo. Each man seems withdrawn into his own torturous preparation. And perhaps in the back of each mind is the pressure of Finland's intensely organized Nordic program; Halonen estimates there are some 2,000 young jumpers in training.

Dinner comes at about 5 p.m., and then each jumper studies the videotapes of his day's work. By 8:30 p.m. or so, the Institute is totally quiet and dark.

Enter Matti Nukes.

He whips into the parking lot at the wheel of a shiny new metal-flake gray Saab 900 GLS. This is an $18,000 car, definitely not the sort of vehicle one associates with a laborer on a ski-jump maintenance crew at Jyväskylä. But the Saab promotion people spread these jazzy cars among prominent Scandinavian sports figures as sort of loan-gifts; Sweden's Bjorn Borg, for instance, drove one in his heyday.

Nykänen stamps into the TV room wearing the standard après-jump costume: supremely baggy warmups, floppy sweat socks and wooden-soled clogs. His straw-blond hair blows loosely to each side from a part down the middle. Bright red spots of petulance burn in his cheeks. "This shouldn't come from my training time," he growls at Halonen and Pulli, who are clearly uneasy. "I don't want to answer a bunch of stupid questions."

And that does it for Halonen, a proud man who clearly has his limits. He pulls Matti Nukes off to one side, within earshot of the interpreter, and tells him sternly that this isn't training time—you can't jump in the dark—and that, like it or not, interviews are a part of being the world champion. But most important, national pride and the Finns' reputation as a civilized, polite people are at stake. Now, let's calm down here, right?

Right, indeed. Nykänen settles down to mere outrage, and in the exchanges that follow, his total, monomaniacal dedication comes through. Anything other than jumping is stupid, by his reckoning.

"I'm not any more brave; that is, my nerves aren't any better than anybody else's in this sport," he says. "It only seems that way to others. But I've never been afraid of a jump in my life. Each jump, everywhere in the world, has its own personality. They just look the same to someone who doesn't understand. You approach a hill and say to it, 'Are you going to be a good jump? Or a bad one?' And if it's bad, well, there's nothing you can do about it."

All right, then. What of the 90- and 70-meter jumps at Sarajevo?

He shrugs with a certain touch of scorn. "Quite ordinary," he says.

Nyk√§nen is puzzled at first, then bitterly amused by a spirited discussion about his unique, make-it-up-as-you-fly style of jumping. An expert for Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's largest morning paper, once noted that Nyk√§nen "boldly forced his is not a style that strikes the eye." Everybody in the group has a run at translating this, and then: "It's this," Nyk√§nen says, as if explaining it to a roomful of dolts. "The takeoff is everything. But then, umm, but then, at about 20 or 30 meters out into the air, I can feel it—how it's going to go. I can tell in that instant how the jump will come out, and if I've started it badly, well, I just simply pull it all together."

Hastings has referred to ski jumping as the world's last surviving seat-of-the-pants sport, and Nukes gets that analogy even as the interpreter speaks. "It is two feelings," he says. "You are up there and you get a feeling of flying and gliding, both." He grows sour again. "If it wasn't nice, I wouldn't do it." And he angrily kicks one wooden clog across the room, bouncing it off the far wall. Halonen and Pulli pretend not to have seen it.

Then comes his final outburst and, with it, the explanation that Halonen had promised earlier in the day: "My nerves are all right," says Nykänen. "But I'm getting a growing fighting feeling. I'm mad. No, no, I'm not mad at you, but I'm mad and I'll stay that way. I must."

And that's it, of course. The room falls silent; Nykänen jumps up and stamps out, muttering to himself about idiots from the U.S. and stupid questions.

Halonen explains further: "This is what I'd call a half-secret," he says. "We don't use drugs, of course—no drug can produce this effect. But it is our training system for the Olympics to make our jumpers nervous." He pauses, wondering if that's the right word in English. One suspects the word he wants is mean. Halonen spreads out both hands in a broad shrug. "It just happens that Matti has become nervous about two weeks ahead of everybody else on the team."

And Pulli adds the clincher: "You must understand that Matti has always been a strange boy," he says. "But just consider this: There are many, many ski jumpers who are thoroughly charming. I mean, they are nice to talk to and sweet. Ah, but when that one time comes when everything is at stake—when you need someone to make the one jump that will win the championship—they can't do it. So much for being charming, Matti can make that jump."


Nykänen's monomania may be hard to take, but it keeps him a jump ahead of his rivals.


There are 500 steps to climb to reach the top of the Vuokatti jump, and coaches Pulli (left) and Halonen to face at the bottom.


Hastings tests his form in a wind tunnel.