For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a ski jumper. Wait, no, that wasn’t me. As a child I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but prescription spectacles at the age of 12 put paid to that. The same defect scuppered my chances of being an astronaut. An overall lack of athleticism further dashed my dreams of joining the SAS or being a ninja. But these same drawbacks didn’t deter Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards from achieving his ambition of becoming an Olympic ski jumper. Britain’s greatest that ever lived.
At the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards came last in both the 70m and 90m ski jumps – the latter 23 metres short of the next worst contender. But as Britain’s only Olympic ski jumper in nearly 70 years, the perseverance of this plucky plasterer from Cheltenham captured the hearts of the watching world. Eddie the Eagle was immortalised.
It’s this legend that inspires me as I fly into Norway, birthplace to the Nordic discipline of ski jumping. It was on this soil, in 1809, that Lieutenant Olaf Rye landed the world’s first recorded ski jump of 9.5 metres as a dare to his fellow soldiers. It was in Norway that the first ski jump competition was held in 1862. And it was in the capital of Oslo in 1879, that Olaf Haugann set the first ski jump world record of 20 metres. Now it’s time to add a new ski-jumping first – my own.
At dusk I stand in the shadow of the mighty Holmenkollbakken – the colossal hill that has hosted the Ski Jumping World Cup since 1892. From its summit, deities have soared – the Olympians of the 1952 Winter Games. In that year the slope measured 68 metres, but like Jörmungandr, the serpent of Norse legend that coiled itself around the earth, Holmenkollbakken has continued to grow, its belly now stretching 120 metres. And that’s just the distance from take-off to the point where its 36-degree incline starts to shallow out. Any jumper who doesn’t land before then risks splintering their ankles and telescoping their spine on impact. Add to that its 97m-long in-run – the steel launch ramp that accelerates jumpers to around 95km/h upon take-off. For me to attempt this jump would be ritual suicide, so, mercifully, I will face a comparatively less lethal 60m hill. It takes a natural ski jumper only four years to master that one. I’m in town for 72 hours.
It was just 18 months before the Calgary Olympics when 23-year-old Edwards walked into the training camp at Lake Placid, NY, asking to be taught how to jump. His instructor, Chuck Berghorn recalled that first encounter with the would-be Olympian: “He was old, had never jumped before, was wearing the thickest glasses I’d ever seen, and he was chunky.” These are all words of encouragement to me.
“I was three years old when I started ski jumping,” Björn Einar Romören tells me on my first day of training. My instructor has the slender frame and elvish handsomeness you’d expect of a Scandinavian superhuman bred to ski jump since the moment he could stand in an aerodynamic pose. “I had to compete alone because the others were all seven years old. The only thing I could measure was length, so I wanted to jump longer than the rest.” Twenty-years later, in 2005, he literally did – breaking the world record with a 239m jump.
“It takes a little time to get from the smallest hill to the big one,” Björn explains. “But of course, as a perfect athlete, I’ll get you there in a couple of days, no problem.” Norwegians are either very polite or extremely sarcastic.
He points me to a large crash mat and buckles a bungee rope to the base of my spine. “This is to help you get the feeling of the take-off, of how it should be to leap forward and fly,” he says, directing me up onto a wooden box and into the ‘in-run position’ – knees bent, chest down, arms swept back like the Rolls Royce Silver Lady. “Imagine you’re jumping out onto a balloon. If you’re too aggressive you’ll fall forwards over the balloon. You will land on your face. If you’re too passive, you’ll fall off the balloon backwards onto your ass.”
On the count of three, I spring forwards at a 45-degree angle and for a nano-second feel the rush of being airborne. Björn releases the rope and I slap onto the crash mat like a steak onto a chopping board.
“You’re doing this little pre-jump,” he says, mimicking me bobbing before the moment. “Do not do it, because when you are on the ski jump hill at 100km/h, you will have no chance to do it. Be steady and strong.” I go again. And again and again.
“Either you will be world champion or you’ll perform excellent at the ballet,” he says with glacial wit, before turning serious. “Tomorrow, when you are ski jumping, please jump upwards more than forwards, because it’s much better to land on your ass than your face.”
“Have you ever landed on your face?” I ask. He nods. “What do you do when that happens?”
“When everything is good, time slows down, you are floating. But when it goes wrong, it becomes very fast. All you think is, Ooh, this is going to hurt. You just try to protect your head.”
My day continues with coaching on the finest minutiae of ski jumping. I climb aboard an in-run simulator built from very primitive technology – a wooden trolley rolling down a ramp. That’s followed by a trip into the Norwegian wilderness to face an even more vintage balancing exercise – stepping stones made from wobbling logs of increasing height and decreasing stability.
Balance, it turns out, is quite important to ski jumping, because next I’m forced to navigate across what looks like a pair of trouser braces horizontally suspended a half-metre above the snow. They’re slacklines and, as the name cruelly teases, they quiver ever more erratically as I venture toward the middle. At that point I’m ordered to get into the in-run position and jump, landing back on the ropes. Completing that, I have to about-turn on them. Then I have to do it all again on just one rope. I’m too incompetent to discover what would have happened had I excelled at that.
“Landing is very important, because if you cannot land you have a problem,” my next instructor, Calo, sagely divulges. “You have two choices: the parallel landing – feet together, knees bent, arms stretched, body upright. This is the easy one – in the competition the judges will give you not so good a mark. The most elegant to get a full score is the Telemark landing – one step in front.”
This looks easy, I think as I get into the in-run position atop a Jenga tower four foot-stools high. I jump and land and stumble. “Bend your legs like a car over bumps.” I jump and land and stumble. “Too much bounce. You need the core muscles to be strong.” I jump and land and stumble. “You are too far forward, you will land on your face.”
Core muscles, it seems, are also important to ski jumping, as Calo leads me to the next exercise – lateral jumps. Or as they’re known in Norway – hopping over pieces of firewood in a puddle of ice water. “Agility, coordination, power,” he says, ticking off all the qualities I need in my next life. “This is endurance training – two jumps forward, one jump back. Two forward, one back.” He demonstrates, skipping between the blocks like Michael Flatley playing hopscotch. My attempt is closer to falling over with my trousers down.
After this, they lead me out into the woods where a large steel frame, three times as high as a set of goal posts, stands in the snow. A series of handlers busily operates pulleys and ropes dangling from it. Björn is there, smiling. Based on my recent performance, I’m convinced I’ve qualified for a medieval Norwegian execution.
“So, you’re ready to fly!” he laughs as the handlers attach skis to my feet and a bungee rope to my waist. “Now we’re going to hit you with the wind, so you’ll feel how massive the effect of the speed is when we’re in the air.”
It’s at this point that I notice what looks like two jet engines a few metres in front of me. “But this is also work,” Björn continues. “When you are jumping on the hill it’s quite fast. Here, we have more time to feel how it is to control yourself.” With a hydraulic whine my bungee rope tenses, lifting me up like a cow being delivered to a velociraptor paddock. “You need to use your whole body and strength. Those core muscles!” Björn calls up to me over the sound of the winch. “The skis are big and wide, you have to point the tips a bit upwards,” he shouts as I stop, suspended 10 metres up. I point the ski tips upwards. “Perfect! Have fun!”
If there are more handy tips I don’t hear them. The wind turbines kick in, blasting me with enough gale force to obliterate all three of the little pigs’ homes. My jowls ripple like a French mastiff’s and when I open my mouth my cheeks inflate like a basketball. I’d scream but it’s impossible to exhale. Then I remember my posture and, tightening my stomach muscles, I straighten my body and pull my arms back like wings. The skis lift to a tighter angle and suddenly I can control the pitch and yaw of my body. I’m flying! I’ve barely grasped the concept before the turbines shut off and the winch lowers me.
“You can see how the wind is grabbing you,” Björn remarks as he unbuckles my trembling form. “When you have the balance, you feel the air.” He runs his fingertips across the underside of his hand. “When you’re flying forward everything is slow motion, you have control of everything. You can adjust with one arm and fly a bit longer. The longer you fly, the more fun you have.”
“Did you know you were breaking the world record as it happened?” I ask. He nods.
“I was so happy. I said, ‘OK, that’s my season. I’m hitting the bar!’ But then I thought, I might do it even better. On the same day, a friend of mine broke the record again – I only had it for one hour and I was so pissed. I decided, ‘I’m not leaving this hill without it.’ Then the conditions improved.”
His face breaks into a grin. “When I felt the take off, when I felt I had the balance, I just knew it. Then it’s just 7.7 seconds of pure joy. You come over the knoll and you see this line there. You know, I’m going there. Just talking about it makes the…” he points to the fine blond hairs standing up on his willowy right arm. “It releases so much adrenaline. I can ask you tomorrow after you do your first ski jump, how the adrenaline level is.” He should ask me now – it’s already quite high.
That evening, I watch Björn’s world-record jump on YouTube. Sitting on the start platform, he limbers up and then, without a moment’s pause, releases his grip and rockets down the ramp, his poise as rigid as a statue. At the take-off point he effortlessly straightens his body upwards and soars into the air, the front of his skis opening into the ‘flying V’ – an aerodynamic style that came to the fore in the early ’90s when jumpers found it gave them 10 per cent more distance, even while judges marked them down on technique. Björn Einar Romören glides above the hill further than seems possible, weightless like a crane fly, on and on, until he touches gently down far beyond the point of safety. He’s ecstatic. His record held for six years.
I click on another of his videos from three years later. Again, he powers down the ramp, his pose fixed and sure. But metres before the take-off, his composure breaks ever so slightly, his arms twitching back, alert, and then he’s beyond the take-off point, his right ski flying from his foot. His grace is instantly gone and he’s a mortal man catapulted far into the air, his arms flailing in clear distress as he ploughs hard into the slope, tumbling down it like a rag doll thrown from a dog’s mouth. But in that split-second before he hits, I see him cup his head. Even in that accelerated moment of chaos, he’s focused. He walks away, unscathed.
The Red Bulletin was sent to Oslo for the cinema release of Eddie The Eagle. The film is now showing UK-wide.