It's not a bad time to be an Austrian ski-jumping fan. Not only has Tommy Morgenstern been crowned World Champion with five rounds of the competition still to go, but big congratulations must also go to Gregor Schlierenzauer, double gold medallist at the World Ski Flying championships held in Obertsdorf, Germany, this weekend.
Around 100,000 spectators turned out in the mild conditions to witness one of the most extreme of mainstream sports. This was 18 year-old Schlierenzauer's first encounter with the sport, having already proven himself as one of the top ski-jumpers on the circuit. Ski Flying takes the same basic lunacy to even greater extremes. Competitors jump from further up the hill, accelerating into flight at over 100km/h, and reaching distances over twice the length of its tame sister-sport. From the right angle - and the TV camerawork from Germany was magnificent - it really does look like they're flying. The men's individual competition on Saturday was held at night under the floodlights, looking even more spectacular.
When you bear in mind that the extra 100 metres is roughly the length of a football (soccer, for international readers) pitch, you'll get some idea of the kinds of feats we're talking about here. Rather like a mountain time-trial in cycling, this is the ultimate test for a professional, pushing the parameters of the possible right to the limit. Last Thursday when I turned on the TV I saw Schlierenzauer gingerly feeling his way into the sport at the qualification session. His first attempt at the discipline, he didn't seem to be entirely comfortable with the transition at first, easing his way in with some pretty conservative efforts. By Saturday he was setting the hill alight, beating Martin Koch and Janne Ahonen into second and third places respectively.
“This is a dream, my greatest victory so far" said an emotional Schlierenzauer. "Ski Flying is a cool sport. I tried to play with the air and it worked perfect today. I can´t realize it at the moment". By Sunday afternoon's team competition he was confident enough to produce a final jump of 216 metres, sealing the gold medal for Austria in the team competition. Everybody now realises that this exciting and natural talent has arrived.
Norway and Finland were left trailing in the slipstreams of the Austrian quartet of Schlierenzauer, Koch, Morgenstern and Kofler this afternoon. Norwegian Anders Jacobsen didn't really carry his form and technical mastery of the flight phase into the competition at all, although Ski Flying world record holder Bjorn Einar Ramoeren - the same man who left the table with only one ski to tragi-comic effect in Val di Fiemme last month - looked to be at home. Only the real elite managed to push through the 200m mark. In the team competition the Austrians underlined their superiority, a ridiculously high percentage of their jumps clearing the calculation line.
With the FIS Ski-jumping World cup now heading to Scandinavia for the next four rounds, and 'Morgy' already crowned as champion, the remaining events are in danger of appearing to be a bit of a side-show. Just the kind of circumstances a jumper like Koch may exploit to secure his first World Cup victory. After watching his consistent 'flying' in Oberstdorf he certainly has both the form and the confidence, and it would be just one more reminder that now is an excellent time to be an Austrian ski-jumping fan.