One of six sports included in every Olympic Winter Games, ski jumping will feature a crop of young sensations and a few familiar faces in February in Vancouver. The Americans, in typical Olympic ski jumping fashion, will not contend for a medal. Below is a closer look at the storylines to watch during the 2010 Games:
Gregor the great
Few countries can approach Austria's depth one through four. After failing to win a ski jumping medal in Salt Lake for the first time since the 1988 Calgary Games, Austria took gold in the team event in Torino whileThomas Morgenstern and Andreas Kofler added gold and silver in the large hill competition. Morgenstern will be back in the mix in Vancouver and will be joined by young sensation Gregor Schlierenzauer and 2009 normal hill world champion Wolfgang Loitzl. The trio, along with Martin Koch, is the reigning world champion in the team event and should be considered the favorite for Vancouver. On the individual front, Schlierenzauer won a record 13 World Cup events during the 2008-09 season, including the two test events at the 2010 Olympic Games venue. His unprecedented success also led to his first overall World Cup title. Though this will be his first Olympic appearance, Schlierenzauer is managed by his uncle, three-time Olympic luge medalist Markus Prock. Already a mega-celebrity in Europe, if the 20-year-old is able to replicate his recent success in Vancouver, he could emerge as the ski jumping face of his generation.
Harry Potter strikes back
Twenty-year-old Simon Ammann of Switzerland entered the 2002 Olympic Games as a relative unknown. He would leave Salt Lake City with two gold medals and a worldwide following. Ammann had never won a world championship medal or a World Cup event prior to the 2002 Games. Thanks to two final transcendent jumps, he won both the normal and large hill events, becoming just the second jumper in history to win two individual gold at a single Games. What made him one of the more memorable characters though, was his undeniable resemblance to Harry Potter. The pair shared the same tousled brown hair, thick-rimmed glasses and lively personality that made the fictional wizard so immensely popular. The instant celebrity brought Ammann appearances on the talk show circuit (including The Late Show with David Letterman) and multiple endorsement deals in Switzerland.
In the years following Salt Lake, Ammann struggled to recapture his winning form. After closing his unforgettable 2001-02 season with a victory, he didn't record another World Cup win again until Dec. 2006. Hardly surprising then that Ammann failed to finish in the top 10 in Torino. Since then, Ammann has rebounded with a string of successful, and more importantly, injury-free seasons. The 28-year-old Swiss won his first world championship medal in 2007, taking gold and silver in the large and normal hills, respectively. At the 2009 Worlds, Ammann added a normal hill bronze medal to his growing tally. With seven World Cup wins since Torino and a second place finish in the overall World Cup standings in 2008-09, Ammann figures to be one of the favorites in Vancouver, eight years after his triumph in Salt Lake.
At the 1924 Chamonix Games, Norway's Thorleif Haug was thought to have finished third. But 50 years later - 40 years after Haug's death - former Olympian Toralf Stromstad, a silver medalist in the 1924 Nordic combined competition, and sports historian Jakob Vaage, discovered an error in the computation of the scores. When the ski jumping results were corrected, Haug was dropped to fourth place and Norwegian-born American Anders Haugen, who had paid his own way to the 1924 Games, was elevated to third. In 1974, at the age of 85, Haugen was awarded his medal at a special ceremony in Oslo. He is the only American to have won an Olympic medal in ski jumping, and it took 50 years for anyone to notice.
It's only fitting then, that one of the strongest jumpers for the United States shares a name with the 1924 bronze medalist. Anders Johnson is the son of long-time ski jumping and Nordic combined coach Alan Johnson. Anders competed in the team competition in Torino at 16 years old, making him the youngest American jumper in Olympic history. Other candidates to represent the U.S. in ski jumping include Nick Fairall, Nick Alexander and Chris Lamb. Current signs point to the U.S. not participating in the team event in Vancouver. That would make it the only event at the 2010 Games in which the U.S. would not have a representative - a noteworthy exception for the ever-growing winter power.
Finishing with the Olympics
Finland, a perennial ski jumping force, will benefit from the return of nine-time world championship medalist Janne Ahonen. Despite his success on the World Cup circuit, which includes two overall titles, Ahonen has yet to deliver the kind of individual performance at four Olympic appearances that merit inclusion in the pantheon of Finnish jumping gods. The King Eagle, as he's known in Finland, retired from the sport in July 2008. "The motivation for competing has not disappeared, but my motivation and self discipline to practice as hard as needed to succeed on this level is not there anymore," Ahonen said at the time. But after witnessing Finnish jumpers fail to reach the podium at the 2009 World Championships for the first time since 1999, Ahonen decided he still had the drive to compete. The part-time drag racer started jumping again in the summer of 2009 and has openly stated his sole purpose of returning is to finally win his first individual Olympic medal. If the two-time silver medalist is able to do just that, there'll be a seat for him next to fellow jumpers Matti Nykaenen (four gold) and Toni Nieminen (two gold) among Finland's most revered Olympians.