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By 1981, Matti Nukes was both the Finnish 90-meter and junior world champ. First time out as a senior, in 1982, he won the 90-meter jump at Oslo's celebrated Holmenkollen and ended the year with the top national ranking in Finland. Last season, a world-championship off-year, he swept just about everything available: the Intersport Springertournee, the four-meet jumping circus in Switzerland that's regarded as the most important event of the year; the Sarajevo Pre-Olympics at 90 meters; and the World Cup series, winding up the 26-event Cup season with a 17-point lead over Canada's Horst Bulau.
When the Finnish team returned in triumph from the Holmenkollen last year, the proud fathers of Jyväskylä presented Nukes with a lifetime job with the city parks department—promising as much time off for jumping as he needs without deducting it from his pay—and there was talk of building him a house in town as a gift.
Evening comes early to the Sports Institute at Vuokatti: The eight jumpers-in-residence drive themselves relentlessly like some lonely new breed of Nordic Spartans. This is the last of three off-season camps. When it ends the competitive season begins; in the 10 weeks between now and Sarajevo, the Finnish A-team will have just one week off. There are two long workouts a day on the hill at Vuokatti, and between jumps each man trudges up the 300 steps carrying 35 pounds of skis over his shoulder. Then comes still another hillside and, finally, that long, forbidding stairwell up through the inside of the structure to the starting ramps—200 more steps. Understandably, there's not much banter; only the best five or six here will make the Finnish jumping team for Sarajevo. Each man seems withdrawn into his own torturous preparation. And perhaps in the back of each mind is the pressure of Finland's intensely organized Nordic program; Halonen estimates there are some 2,000 young jumpers in training.
Dinner comes at about 5 p.m., and then each jumper studies the videotapes of his day's work. By 8:30 p.m. or so, the Institute is totally quiet and dark.
Enter Matti Nukes.
He whips into the parking lot at the wheel of a shiny new metal-flake gray Saab 900 GLS. This is an $18,000 car, definitely not the sort of vehicle one associates with a laborer on a ski-jump maintenance crew at Jyväskylä. But the Saab promotion people spread these jazzy cars among prominent Scandinavian sports figures as sort of loan-gifts; Sweden's Bjorn Borg, for instance, drove one in his heyday.
Nykänen stamps into the TV room wearing the standard après-jump costume: supremely baggy warmups, floppy sweat socks and wooden-soled clogs. His straw-blond hair blows loosely to each side from a part down the middle. Bright red spots of petulance burn in his cheeks. "This shouldn't come from my training time," he growls at Halonen and Pulli, who are clearly uneasy. "I don't want to answer a bunch of stupid questions."
And that does it for Halonen, a proud man who clearly has his limits. He pulls Matti Nukes off to one side, within earshot of the interpreter, and tells him sternly that this isn't training time—you can't jump in the dark—and that, like it or not, interviews are a part of being the world champion. But most important, national pride and the Finns' reputation as a civilized, polite people are at stake. Now, let's calm down here, right?
Right, indeed. Nykänen settles down to mere outrage, and in the exchanges that follow, his total, monomaniacal dedication comes through. Anything other than jumping is stupid, by his reckoning.
"I'm not any more brave; that is, my nerves aren't any better than anybody else's in this sport," he says. "It only seems that way to others. But I've never been afraid of a jump in my life. Each jump, everywhere in the world, has its own personality. They just look the same to someone who doesn't understand. You approach a hill and say to it, 'Are you going to be a good jump? Or a bad one?' And if it's bad, well, there's nothing you can do about it."