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Joy Ride
Steve Rushin
March 02, 1998
The Winter Olympics were a daily celebration of the crazy, exhilarating spirit of men and women determined to fly—and often succeeding
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March 02, 1998

Joy Ride

The Winter Olympics were a daily celebration of the crazy, exhilarating spirit of men and women determined to fly—and often succeeding

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Soaring. Wanting to fly is among the oldest and most human of aspirations, and the undisputed star of these Games was a 5'8" Japanese ski jumper named Masahiko Harada, a corporeal version of the comedy-tragedy masks, forever smiling and weeping throughout the fortnight. It was his very humanity that made him aspire to the heavens, of course, and his humanity that had prevented him from getting there for so long.

"When I get the top place in official practice events, I cannot sleep well at night," Harada said long before the Olympics began. "When I expect to get the gold, I become nervous, my body becomes stiff, I cannot fly."

Harada, whose dying-quail jump in Lillehammer cost Japan what seemed to be a certain team gold medal, finished a disappointing fifth in the 90-meter jump in Nagano. He was in sixth place after the first jump in the 120-meter event, then landed an absurd 136-meter jump on his second to salvage a bronze, a flight so long and freakish that it had to be hand-measured. But the team is what matters most in Japan, the concept of wa, and in the team jump on the 120-meter hill last week, Harada's first jump came in zero visibility during a blizzard. He traveled only 79.5 meters, 18 meters less than his ridiculously short team jump in Lillehammer. "I thought I gave trouble again to the team," Harada would say, and even Japanese scribes were choking back grief, wondering if this jump was a cosmic joke or a Job-like test.

"What a big burden does God give him," wrote the man from one newspaper, Asahi Shimbun. Echoed the correspondent from Chunichi Shimbun: "It seemed like a god's mischief."

In Harada's second and final team jump, with conditions not radically improved and the Japanese squad in jeopardy, the father of two made his approach and a nation held its breath. "At the best times," Harada said in White Forest, White Hill, a book about Japanese ski jumping, "I could fly far without consciousness. Put on the skis. Enter the gate. Fly."

Minutes before, Harada's teammate Takanobu Okabe had gotten off a jump of 137 meters, one meter farther than Harada's shocking leap of two days earlier. Okabe's feat was difficult to translate into American—a five-run game-winning homer, perhaps—but, amazingly, Harada now equaled the distance, flying, far and without consciousness, hurtling himself maniacally off the hill, as if at Kitty Hawk. Harada and everyone else looked shell-shocked, and no wonder.

Harada still had to wait for teammate Kazuyoshi Funaki to jump, but the gold now seemed a fait accompli, the remaining action summed up by another newspaper, Shinano Manichi Shimbun, in three telegrammatical sentences (literally translated here): "Harada was so shivered that he almost couldn't stand by himself. Funaki's jumping brought them the gold medal. Harada sobbed out in public without hesitation."

He sobbed, he smiled, he was handed a bouquet of flowers by a kimonoed woman and threw them to spectators, leading 30,000 people in cheers of Banzai!—may you live a thousand years.

He wept in the postjump press conference, wept in drug testing, wept to journalists who wept when asking him questions. "The Crying Games," Reuters called these Olympics, but Harada by this point was smiling through the tears, a man utterly at peace with himself. The Japanese watched Harada on national television, and they came away the better for his example. "We have social problems with children," Yushiro Yagi, the button-down head of Japan's delegation said last Saturday. "I think we have to be grateful to Mr. Harada for his role."

The host nation was exemplary, too, it must be said, because the hosts were not about to say it themselves. Japan won five gold medals in Nagano, or two more than it had won in all previous Winter Olympics combined. "We do not wish to boast of our achievements," Yagi said, but he just had, for modesty was one of those achievements, and it spread to most everybody, a happy contagion.

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