The good ski jumpers talk about air—dead air, good air. The great ones merely fly on it. And as he proved on Sunday afternoon at Canada Olympic Park, there's one great ski jumper today, a jumper for all times named Matti Nyk�nen, Finland's sometime bad boy of the sport.
The 24-year-old Nyk�nen—a.k.a. Matti Nukes—won the 70-meter competition by 17 points, a margin greater than that which separated second place from 10th. He soared 294 feet on his first jump, the longest of the round and 3.3 feet shy of the hill record set in 1986 by Ingo Lesser of East Germany. On his second jump, despite a following wind that had blown up, creating the dead, or empty, air that's the bane of lesser ski jumpers, Nyk�nen duplicated that distance—again the best of the round.
The scene was much the same for both jumps. As the crowd chanted "Go! Go! Go!" and blue-and-white Finnish flags were held aloft in the breeze, Nyk�nen gathered himself at the top of the inrun, checked the wind and started down the ramp in his crouch. At the bottom he exploded or took flight or did something that no one can quite put a finger on. This much we know: Speed is not the secret of Nyk�nen's success. His speed at takeoff—54.8 mph on his first jump, 54 on his second—was slower than the average of the 58 jumpers in the competition. Some say the key is the quickness with which Nyk�nen gets his body into a perfect forward lean after takeoff; he has done it in as little as .12 of a second. Some say it is his physique; Nukes is 5'10" and wide-shouldered but weighs only 132 pounds, making his upper body a sort of flesh-and-blood spinnaker on which he is able to sail. Some say his bones are hollow, like a bird's. Whatever the reason, Nyk�nen is on a different level from the rest of the best in the world, and the 52,000 people watching him Sunday gasped as he floated and floated and finally touched down, punching his fists into the air in triumph. Asked how Nyk�nen did it, Mark Konopacke, the top American finisher (18th), said, "No idea. But he's himself again."
Let's hope not. That is to say, let's hope that Nyk�nen is right when he insists he isn't the same old hell-raising, disco-bashing Nukes who so alienated teammates and coaches with his boorish arrogance that twice he has been suspended from the national team. "Matti has grown up a lot in the past year," says Matti Pulli, 53, his coach since the mid-'70s. "I have complete control over him now. It's like a miracle."
Nyk�nen has been infamously irascible ever since 1982, when at 18 he burst into international prominence by winning the 90-meter title at Oslo's prestigious Holmenkollen. He won the first of his three World Cup titles in 1983, and then won gold and silver medals in the 90 meters and 70 meters, respectively, at the 1984 Olympics. In 1985 in Planecia, Czechoslovakia, he soared a world-record 627 feet in ski flying, ski jumping's more dangerous cousin.
Despite his successes, Nyk�nen was very much the angry young man. He dropped out of school after the ninth grade—and devoted his life to jumping. He climbed the rickety tower of the 35-meter hill in his hometown of Jyv�skyl� to make as many as 60 jumps a day. Jumping was in him. No one could teach him more than he innately knew or had discovered through trial and error. Always curt and abrasive with reporters, he was also rude and imperious with his coaches, the impetuous prodigy. His way was not just the right way, it was the only way. He became a great jumper, but he was also immature, self-centered, intolerant and insufferable.
This side of him first came to light in December 1985 at a World Cup event in Thunder Bay, Ont., when his excessive drinking and poor rapport with his teammates were widely reported in the Finnish press. When the team returned home, Nyk�nen was, as punishment, banned by his national ski association from competing in the '86 Vierschanzentournee, a 90-meter event held early in January in four Austrian and West German cities. Unchastened, in March of that year, after the closing banquet of the World Ski Flying Championships in Kulm, Austria, Nyk�nen trashed a local discotheque. That summer he received a two-month suspended sentence for pilfering cigarettes and beer from a kiosk in Vuokatti, the town in which the Finnish team trains.
Nyk�nen wed fashion model Tiina Hassinen in December 1986, but any thought that married life would settle him down was soon dashed. First he was sent home from a World Cup meet in Lake Placid for sleeping through a training session. In January 1987, Nyk�nen demanded that he be allowed to bring Tiina along on that year's Vierschanzentournee. Having one's wife or girlfriend on a team trip isn't allowed, but Nyk�nen petulantly threatened to boycott the trip if the rule wasn't waived for him. Finally a Finnish magazine offered to pick up Tiina's expenses, and the ski association gave permission for her to go along. But Nukes's teammates refused to allow her on the team bus, and the newlyweds traveled from one city to the next by taxi.
The Finnish coaches, determining that Nyk�nen's attitude was undermining team morale, finally sent him home, whereupon Nyk�nen took Tiina on a honeymoon. They went to Sri Lanka for two weeks, courtesy of another publication, the gossip magazine Seura, which reported their every coo and snuggle to an adoring public. "Nyk�nen is the most popular sports figure in Finland," says Seura editor Isto Lysm�. "We sell a lot of magazines when we feature Matti."
Nyk�nen returned from Sri Lanka just in time for the Finnish nationals in January 1987. Not surprisingly, he jumped so poorly that he failed to make the team for the upcoming world championships in Oberstdorf, West Germany. There was an outcry from Nyk�nen's fans, and recognizing that the Finnish team couldn't win without him, the ski association gave him a berth at the worlds. Whereupon Nukes placed second in the 70 meters and helped the Finns to the gold in the team competition. Still, it was a lost season for Nyk�nen, who finished in sixth place in the World Cup standings.