The young ones are the best. The microbes of doubt haven't yet infected their minds, and perhaps 90% of the exercise is mental. But the young ones are the worst, too, precisely because they are so young—10 or 11 years old when they are discovered, 14 when they begin working with coaches from the national team, sometimes only 16 when they achieve the fame that they are so ill-equipped to deal with.
Matti Pulli knows this. It troubles him. Yet he sets aside his ambivalence and picks out the young ones just the same. As supervisor of the jumping program for the Finnish Ski Federation, Pulli is the godfather of the mother of all sports in this nation of five million people where ski jumping supplies most of the country's excitement and celebrities over the endless winters.
Finland's Matti Nykänen had not yet turned 21 when he won the gold medal on the large hill at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Four years later, in Calgary, he topped that performance by winning an unprecedented three gold medals. In Albertville in 1992, 16-year-old Toni Nieminen became the youngest Winter Olympics gold medalist ever, winning on the large hill and in the team competition. The prodigy of the moment is Janne Ahonen, who could win a medal in Lillehammer even though he, too, is only 16. Pulli has been like a father to all of them. His own daughter, Terhi, had wanted to become a physical education teacher and now sits in a wheelchair as a result of a peculiarly polar calamity, a car accident involving a moose. But these adoptive sons of his can fly.
In its preference for the slightly built, the young and the fearless, ski jumping is to boys what gymnastics is to girls. Think of Pulli as Bela Karolyi drained of the schmaltz and more aware of the limits of his influence. Pulli has never been a jumper. But while teaching phys ed at a high school in Jyväskylä, he began to coach Finland's original enfant terrible, the legendary Nykänen, when Matti Nukes was 14 years old. Pulli once said of his prodigy something that might be said about anyone who can leap off a mountainside and do more than survive but that applies most acutely to the Finns who do so: "With Matti you have to know where the genius stops and the lunatic starts."
View a ski jumping competition and the thoughts occur to you. You would have to be drunk. (From USA Today International: "A new government study shows Finnish teenagers...drink to get drunk. Ten percent of Finnish 14-year-olds get drunk at least once a month...." Finns get inebriated because they perceive that state of mind as being desirable,' said Salme Ahlstrom of the Social Research Institute of Alcoholic Studies. 'They admire it, unlike other cultures where being drunk is something to be ashamed of.'") You would have to be suicidal. (From the Associated Press: "About 1,500 of Finland's five million people commit suicide each year—28 among every 100,000 Finns. Every fourth teenage death is a suicide, the Social and Health Ministry reports.... Among males aged 15 to 24, Finland has the world's highest rate—40 suicides for every 100,000.") Maybe you just have to be Finnish.
Perhaps the winter air, so fresh and bracing, stirs in Finns a connoisseurship—the desire to find oxygen that's rarer still, ungasped by other mortals. "Finnish culture is very different from, for instance, Japanese, where the people are used to talking with and living with each other," says Pulli. "If a Finn walks into a restaurant and there are a couple of people at one table, he'll want to sit as far away as possible."
Maybe after a history of being swapped back and forth between the Swedes and the Russians—Finland won its independence in 1917 but for decades was tied not only geographically but also politically to the Kremlin—the Finns have an unrequited desire to be free.
Or perhaps the Finnish language—a maddening tongue in which every other word, in the manner of the names of heavy-metal bands, comes sprinkled seemingly indiscriminately with umlauts—tells them things it doesn't tell anyone else. If you're inclined to learn any Finnish at all, learn this: The words for bravery (urhea) and sport (urheilu) are virtually the same.
"There is this macho thing behind it," says Juhani Heikkilä, who covers jumping for the Finnish News Agency. "Austrians, they have their high places, so they aren't afraid of heights. But we don't have any mountains. Maybe it's the tradition of snow, of individualism, of showing courage. And, yes, we are very stubborn."
Once a year the federation gathers elite 14-to 16-year-olds for a training camp to identify the handful of jumpers who will prepare for the World Junior Championships and the national team. That is the extent of the method in this harvest of champions; Pulli and coach Kari Ylianttila do their reaping with scythes, not a John Deere. Scour the tundra for a chain of state-supported jumping schools, for some bunker where people in lab coats suck marrow from young jumpers' bones or graft invisible flaps onto skis, and you'll come across nothing but reindeer tracks. "Finns are the closest thing we have in the modern day to what the Indians were," says Jeff Hastings of the U.S., who finished fourth on the large hill in the 1984 Olympics and coached the American team in 1988. "They live completely in the moment. Whether this is from the length of the winters or the really intense sun of the summers, they just go for it. There is no program. There are just a million skiers. Besides the handful on the World Cup circuit, there are 400 in the woods who could break out their skis on a moment's notice and kick your ass. Every year there's one who comes screaming out of nowhere. Matti Pulli tries to pretend that it's this organized thing, that he has control, but he doesn't. It's like rolling dice. It's going to come up snake eyes eventually."