Leapers continue age-old hunt for distance

The FIS are still fighting to stay in touch with ski jumpers' constant attempts to bend the rules to improve performances.


In the late 1980s, Swedish ski jumper Jan Boklov blew the socks off his sport by discovering he could leap further if he spread his skis into a V-shape.

Until then ski jumping had been dominated by solid men with the heavy leg muscles needed to push up and away from the end of the jump. Overnight, jumpers realised that they needed to be as light and aerodynamically advanced as possible.

Thus was born a cat-and-mouse game where inventive jumpers would devise a new tactic to stay in the air longer. The FIS stepped in to ban it to prevent athletes from gaining an unfair advantage.

The FIS says it has made great advances over the years but admits it will never quite catch up.

"We are always a maximum of one year behind the athletes' development," said Walter Hofer, a genial Austrian who is the FIS ski jumping race director.

The FIS was stunned by Boklov's invention, which allowed jumpers to boost their distance by up to 30 per cent.

"This changed ski jumping completely, we had to rebuild all the facilities," Hofer told Reuters in an interview.

On his laptop Hofer has an alarming picture of a Japanese jumper who figured out he could fly further by placing his boot bindings at the very back of the skis, which meant his head almost touched the tips in flight.

The technique worked, but also caused a large number of crashes, so the FIS dictated bindings could not be positioned too close to the back of the skis.

"Overnight we got rid of all these (crashes)," said Hofer.

The FIS also mandates a maximum ski width and measures it electronically, on the grounds that even a 0.2 mm unfair advantage can be decisive.

Athletes turned their attention to flight suits and worked out that the more impermeable the clothing, the easier it would be stay in the air. Some jumpers' uniforms trebled in thickness from 0.5 cm to 1.5 cm and performances improved markedly.

Once again, the FIS stepped in, and laid down a mass of rules as to exactly what was allowed.

"We even describe the cutting of the suit. And we measure the permeability, the thickness, the size, the fitting of the suit. When the suit is larger than allowed, we disqualify them (the jumpers), because it's decisive," said Hofer,

Deprived of the chance to fiddle with their skis or suits, some jumpers looked at the next obvious solution - cutting their weight. In the darker corners of the sport there are plenty of stories about anorexic jumpers.

The temptations to shun calories are obvious - for every kilogramme you lose, you can fly an extra 2.5 metres.

Alarmed by pictures of gaunt young men and the potential dangers to health, the FIS ruled in 2004 that jumpers had to have a minimum body mass index.

Some nations complained that heavier athletes had little chance against those bumping against the lower limit, so next season the FIS will boost the index.

"We have learned we always have to be on the same level of knowledge as athletes and coaches," Hofer said dryly.

Yet the games and strategies continue. Austria complained at these Olympics that Swiss double gold medallist Simon Ammann had illegally modified his boot bindings to allow him to record longer leaps.

The FIS declared the bindings legal.

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