Sunday, February 21, 2010
John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.
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There is nothing quite like ski jumping at the Winter Olympics.
On Saturday, the ski jumping venue at Whistler Olympic Park, or WOP as it’s called around here, was packed to the brim with ski jumping fans from just about every nation. In qualifying and the first official round, it was the Canadians and Americans who were getting most of the cheers. But by the time the field was trimmed to the top 30, it was the longest jumps that turned up the volume of the more than 6,400 fans who came to see one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports: the large hill individual events.
I mean, isn’t ski jumping the reason we all tuned in to the “Wide World of Sports” back when we were kids? Isn’t ski jumping kind of like a crash in auto racing or the explosion of fireworks that follows the Fourth of July parade?
On Saturday, I was sitting front row, slightly off center, as Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann jumped his way into the history books. He pocketed his fourth Olympic gold medal with jumps of 144 and 138 meters, making him the most decorated ski jumper in individual events in Olympic history.
But hidden somewhere in the shadows of all this great jumping was the fact that the team from the United States still is alive and well. Peter Frenette came within one spot of qualifying for the round of 30 — something that would have given those of us from a little south of here a reason to smile. A top finish could have put ski jumping back at the top of the hill in our country.
But it wasn’t meant to be on Saturday.
Frenette said he was thrilled to have made the Olympics, but you have to start to wonder just how long the sport can make it in the United States. The lack of funding has left the United States well behind countries such as Switzerland, Poland and Austria.
It’s not hard to understand. Ski jumping is a marquee event in many European countries, but in the United States, the sport is not well understood, and it’s not well supported.
Personally, I’m not certain that a medal would help. It might persuade the U.S. Ski Team to reinstate its support for the team, which would be a big step. But outside of the Olympics, most Americans don’t give the sport a second thought.
It might be unfair, but it’s the truth. In America, we love football, baseball and basketball — maybe even a little hockey.
But most winter sports live on the outside of the mainstream, and the athletes must work hard just to get a shot at the spotlight once every four years. I hope the day will come when I can flip on the television and watch the sport of ski jumping. Maybe new networks, like Universal Sports, will give winter sports a new lease on life — because there is nothing quite like ski jumping.