Five-ring Circus

The Perfect Winter Olympic Sport

Ski jumping is beautiful, breathtaking, and utterly deficient.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

Ski jumper Thomas Morgenstern

An Austrian comes across the sky: a hale, skinny 19-year-old named Thomas Morgenstern. It has happened before and will happen again, a mind-numbing 80 times over the course of two days. But despite the whiz-bang cameras—a rail-mounted cam tracking the jumper like a Saturn rocket—the only perceptible difference between a winning jump like Morgenstern’s and his teammate’s silver-medal effort is not distance but time. It’s the extra moment in flight, just a breath, that brings out the cowbells and flags.

That moment—beautiful, breathtaking, and kind of boring—explains why ski jumping is the acme of the Winter Olympics. Figure skating is more famous, but it represents the Olympics no better than high-gloss, chintzy Hollywood represents America. Ski jumping, on the other hand, combines the Winter Olympics’ most distinct qualities: the looming shadow of crippling physical trauma, highly specialized and otherwise useless equipment, and subtleties that are virtually invisible to the naked eye and incomprehensible to the layman.

Ski jumping is like competitive being-shot-from-a-cannon. The act itself is a simple yet grand aesthetic gesture, harkening back to Icarus and the Wright brothers. As competition, it turns on the grand gesture’s really boring technical aspects: waiting for the right wind gust, holding form in flight, and the quality of your “telemark” landing (parallel skis, no more than two ski widths apart, one foot ahead of the other).

Then again, maybe I haven’t given ski jumping a fair shake. When it comes to Winter Olympics sports, it’s hard to tell if you’re watching something inherently tedious or something that’s just difficult to televise. As a test, I trekked off to a real live ski jumping competition to see for myself.

During the first week of the Winter Games, I forsook Turin for Westby, Wisc., a Norwegian-American village not far from the Mississippi. Westby’s modest Snowflake Ski Club (“The Only Ski Jump in the World with a 9-hole Golf Course at its Base!”) periodically hosts the best ski jumpers in the world. The idea that ski jumpers compete on tour, in front of real people, seems bizarre—I always figured they emerged cicada-like every four years from their secret training grounds in Lake Placid.

I quickly discovered one reason why ski jumping hasn’t taken off as a spectator sport in this country. It’s cold in Westby in the winter. The only people actually standing around the drop-zone were hardcore Wisconsinites in Packers jackets and fur hats with the tails still attached—and dumb city kids like me. Everyone else was safely ensconced in sedans and SUVs. The spectators tried to do their part by sounding their horns after the longer jumps, but drive-in athletics just don’t have the same energy level as non-car-bound sporting events.

While I had come to see college-age kids turning themselves into Lycra-clad missiles, I found that the real heroes were the tailgaters. Wisconsin is to tailgating what Austria is to ski jumping. When one local fired up a two-stroke blender powered by a Weedwacker engine in order to make margaritas, it got as strong a response as any of the day’s athletic endeavors.

The talents of the tailgaters ultimately won over the audience, perhaps because ski jumping is no more engaging in person than it is on television. All the jumpers are built like Napoleon Dynamite, wear space-age updates of kids’ snowsuits, and are dwarfed by their enormous day-glo skis. Each skier carries his skis up the long stairway to the top of the jump. This part of the event looks almost as perilous as the jump itself. “Jump” is the wrong word, really. The skiers get flung off the ramp and immediately fold up like a deck chair. The whole thing only seems athletic when they hit the snow with an audible crack, and you realize this is sort of like jumping off a moving car for a living.

Without the benefit of a tracking camera to give a sense of distance, the only way of guessing the quality of a jump is to use your internal clock. Once the crowd judged that a certain skier had stretched out his jump for a bit longer, the guesstimating started. Seventy meters? Seventy-two? Seventy-four? You pick up this ability after about 10 jumps, and it turns the event into something like a dumb bar game, aided by the prevalence of beer and bratwurst.

I imagine this is a different scene than what you’d find in Austria, where ski jumping is televised on the weekends like college sports. But what the U.S. tour lacks in professionalism, it makes up for it in, well … amateurism. Pulled down from the glitzy mantle of the Olympics, ski jumping takes its place just ahead of power margarita-making as an athletic pursuit. And that seems about right.