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Jacob Sweetman: Jumpers for goalposts

As the English are left alone playing football during the winter, Jacob Sweetman gets excited about the ski jumping season. Not just excited, terrified too. Maybe we are not supposed to be up there?

Image for Jacob Sweetman: Jumpers for goalposts
Photo by Geir A Granviken (Ggranvik; Flickr CC)

There’s a slightly romantic notion about British football, at all levels, in the winter. It is played on a pitch that doesn’t solidify until you have gone a couple of inches down into the ground. Said pitch should be sloping dramatically, the wind should be howling like a banshee and the rain should be coming at you horizontally.

It should be so cold that one’s fingers cannot manipulate one’s shoelaces (gloves, gloves?) and said shoelaces should quickly develop a ball of ice and snow on the end of each which will slap your shins and ankles with every step.

Unfortunately the rest of the world decided football should be a pretty game, played with technique along the ground. Ground that was dry. It was also because they had better things to be doing with their winters. In the winter in Britain there are darts, and since Prince Harry turned up at that it has died to me, and football.

The lack of earthquakes or dangerous animals is levelled out. No danger? No fun. No mountains. England in particular is flatter than a Lady Gaga sound check. England’s most famous winter sportsman is just that, only because he failed miserably.

Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards was a ginger, glasses-wearing ski jumper who was so bad that he forced the International Olympic Committee into a change of the rules to stop anyone like him ever appearing in the Winter Olympics again.

Maybe it is the natural reaction of a people, who for years and years looked into the eyes of Sir Isaac Newton every time they pulled out a pound note, not to take gravity for granted.

The idea of soaring above a mountain at the mercy of the elements is a bit much. Especially when one sits down and watches the footage of the annual Vierschanzentournee on Eurosport. There was a particularly beautiful shot yesterday as the camera swung around showing Innsbruck cradled beneath the Alps. Majestic doesn’t even do it justice. It was so humbling one might as well just go and crawl back into the sea.

But others want to fly over it, and have done for years. The Vierschanzentournee has been running since the 1950s. It is one of the premier ski jumping competitions, held in four venues over December and January in Germany and Austria. It is also rather big news.

Firstly there was scandal, as Martin Schmitt was dropped by the German national coach Werner Schuster. Schmitt was a big name in the sport, certainly big enough for the news to get full pages in some of the tabloids, but had rested on his laurels and been overtaken in the six man squad by Andreas Wank. Wank, needless to say, then failed yesterday in qualifying to get through the initial round and into the head-to-heads.

It all sounds like a bit of fun, a nice gentle sport for hill folk with funny names, but there is a serious element to ski jumping that was illustrated by the Norwegian Tom Hilde. He had flown (fallen) for over 130 meters, but the wind was buffeting around him, and the snowfall had been pretty heavy on the ground making his landing trickier than it might have been. Remembering all the time that as he hurtles through the mountain air at speeds one doesn’t like to think of he is being awarded (or deducted) points for style.

Hilde hit the ground, but overbalanced forwards and smashed, faced first, into a roll, his ski’s flying, his arms flailing. His face is smashed to bits and he broke a vertebrae. Norway’s skiing sport director Clas Brede Bråthen spoke of Tom’s courage, but it’s more than that. It’s death defying, it’s beautiful in many ways, it’s great competition (you are still being marked for style!) in the most stunning parts of Europe landscape and it makes great television.

Give me ski-jumping over the darts any day (although the semi-finals of the world championships were amazing, the final itself was a stinker). England needs to find herself a new winter sport.