Thursday, 10 January 2008

Winter Sports...II

My first posting of the year was rather surprisingly one dedicated to the sport of ski-jumping. Captivated by the annual Four Hills series, I felt compelled to write about this most improbable sport. I can only speculate as to how it ever became a sport, but suspect it was the unexpected product of a skiing accident which saw the unlucky skier thrown off course and into fee-fall, only to make a perfect landing some 200m later.

After two rounds of the competition, 17 year-old Austrian sensation Gregor Schlierenzauer looked set to take his first title. His masterful display at Garmisch left Janne Ahonen, Tommy Morgenstern and Micky Neumayer struggling to match his style and distance. The third round, due to take place on his home hill at Innsbruck last Friday, was cancelled due to high winds, denying him the chance to extend his overall lead in the series as many had expected.

Innsbruck being cancelled, attention then moved to Bischofschofen, where an extra event on Saturday was added to the one scheduled for Sunday. Technically I suppose you'd have to call it the 'Three Hills' this year, but with the four round format preserved, each competitor had the same number of jumps as ever to rack up a decisive points tally.

It was the veteran Finnish competitor Janne Ahonen, a winner of four previous titles, who took the hastily re-scheduled third round. Morgenstern came in second, with a below par Schlierenzauer only managing to finish fifth. "This hill really suits me," said the laconic but until recently out of form Ahonen, who won his last World Cup event on the same hill two years ago. The result left the series finely balanced for Sunday night's thrilling finale.

Perhaps the result of too much pressure being placed on his young shoulders (being tipped for success on the pages of Afric Pepperbird is a lot to live up to), Schlierenzauer failed to make the cut for the second round with a somewhat short effort. A disappointing end to this promising jumper's 2007/8 series, but barring the kind of accident you could only possibly sustain in a sport like ski-jumping, he'll be back next year stronger and wiser.

After seeing the young Austrian fail, Ahonen must have found it hard to believe his luck. He was just one jump away from winning an unprecedented fifth title, a result which would move him ahead of the legendary Jens Weissflog. A cool head was required, and the Finn held his nerve to win for the second time in as many days on the Bischofschofen hill. For the record, Norway's Anders Barden beat Morgenstern into second place, though the Austrian still retains the overall lead in the season-long World Cup series.

Ahonen was fairly downbeat in his assessment of his performance. "I don't know what happened exactly," he said, in what must have been a thrilling post-event interview. "It just became easier and more enjoyable to jump."

A master of understatement, not only did Ahonen win that unprecedented fifth title, he also scored the highest ever points total for the series - 1085.8. A little confused perhaps, I'm sure he went home with a smile on his face nevertheless...

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