Third time's the charm for Vettori in ski jump


COURCHEVEL, France -- On a day when families picnicked in piles of snow, slush and hay, when kids went sledding down a hill, when spectators paid $20 to stand on snowbanks and when concession stand operators ran out of hot dogs -- but not $3.50 blueberry tortes -- a guy from Austria threw himself off a mountain and into history.

In a tiny tourist town perched high in the French Alps, the village band played, the shops shut down and the Winter Olympics created a new star.

Ernst Vettori of Austria, a 27-year-old soldier with brown hair, cobalt eyes and a wiry frame, won an event that in recent years has been dominated by Finns. Vettori won the 90-meter normal hill ski jump with a two-jump total of 222.8 points.

"I knew I could do well here, but frankly I did not expect the gold," said Vettori, who was competing in his third Olympic Games. He posted jumps of 288 feet, 8 inches and 287 feet.

His teammate, 17-year-old Martin Hoellwarth, was second with 218.1 points. He had the longest jump of the competition, 296 feet, 10 inches, and led after the first series of jumps, but he wobbled on the second jump and managed only 272-3.

"To be in my first Olympics at 17 and to win a medal is fantastic, I can't complain about the second place," Hoellwarth said.

Toni Nieminen, Finland's 16-year-old flying phenom who was favored to become the youngest male champion, was third with 217 points.

Jim Holland of Norwich, Vt., was the top American finisher in 13th place. He finished with 201.1 points.

One by one, the jumpers, dressed in a rainbow-assortment of blinding hot colors, took turns flying down this skyscraper that stood in a forest of white pines.

And then, they landed . . . a football field away.

The crowd of 10,000 waited patiently in a bowl of snow at the bottom of the ski jump carved into the side of a mountain.The spectators squinted into the sun and sweated in their ski bibs and wool sweaters as the weather and temperature resembled an Opening Day at the ballpark.

There were cheers for the Frenchmen. Finnish flags were unfurled. Cowbells rang out. One fan held up a British Union Jack and a sign that read: "Where's Eddie?" It was a reference to the most famous failure in ski jumping history, Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, who provided the comic relief four years ago when he twice finished last in Calgary, Alberta.

Edwards was banned from the 1992 Olympics by the British Ski Federation. Princess Anne wouldn't even intervene.

This is an event for fliers, not fallers.

"I started doing this when I was 8 years old," Vettori said. "It still gives me great pleasure."

The pleasure for Vettori, and the others, comes from soaring. Consider that Vettori trained nearly a decade for this one moment -- which lasted about eight seconds over two flights.

"This is a realization of a life's dream, to win any Olympic medal at all," he said. "Now, I've won the gold medal. This is really satisfying."

Vettori kept pace with a sport that has been transformed in the past year by a Fosbury Flop of Flight. They call it the V, the technique in which the jumpers turn their skis out to increase their aerodynamic lift like kites. All three medalists performed the V -- in fact, only a handful used the conventional approach of flying with their skis straight.

"I think this is the end of the old, classical style," Finland's Nieminen said. "The V will become much more important in the future."

Many thought that for Nieminen, the future is now. With his soft blond hair and baby face, he may look like everybody's kid brother. But on the ski jump, he is your worst nightmare.

The kid never chokes.

But Nieminen said he was having problems in training this week adjusting to the new ski jumps. He figured he wouldn't even be around for the medal ceremony, so he managed to get two tickets for Finland's hockey game across the mountain in Meribel.

They went unused.

Nieminen wound up as an intruder at an Austrian party. Men and women dressed in Austria's paisley-team uniforms mobbed Hoellwarth, the new teen star. And they hugged Vettori, the veteran who managed to hold off the kids.

"Obviously, there are times when you don't do well, when you don't like your sport," Vettori said. "But I always managed to get back on track. I was at the Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984 and Calgary in 1988, and I didn't do well. But I always managed to get back on track. And now, we've got this new V style. That

should keep me around for a while."

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