The “Normal Hill” Ski Jump

You say “Normal,” I say “Aiiieeeee!”

On the way to the first medal event of the 2010 Olympics, I was feeling excited until I stepped onto the media bus, heard conversations in pretty much every language other than English and French and was reminded of the fact that, oh yeah, we in Canada stink at ski jump.

Still, I took my seat and prepared for the trip to Olympic Park, set in a valley not far from Whistler. Ski jump is the perfect choice to open the Winter Games because its athletes hold the power to unite the peoples of the world in a single shared thought: “What is wrong with those guys?” Hurling oneself off the edge of a ramp while travelling at speeds of 80 km/h and wearing skis the approximate length of the U.S.-Mexico border – it sounds less like a sensible athletic pursuit and more like something Wile E. Coyote would dream up.

Olympic Park is a 30-minute drive through some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable, unless you can imagine countryside where the trees bloom with cold beers and ham sandwiches, which I can. And that’s 30 minutes not counting the 20-minute stoppage in traffic caused by Joe Biden’s motorcade. (Wink, smile, thumb up – at least Joe treated the crowd at Olympic Park to the Biden Trifecta.)

By the time we arrived, the parking lot was thick with mud and the stands were thick with Scandinavians. Despite the hour – 9:45 a.m. PT or so – the concession stand was doing a brisk business in chowder and sausage. (Mmm, morning sausage.) A sign indicated that $2 would get you a “Whole Banana.” I for one appreciated the specificity: so many times now I’ve paid my money only to discover the presence on my lunch tray of three-eighths of a banana. Now the shoe’s on the other foot, Chiquita.

One element of the Olympics that you don’t get exposed to when watching on television is the live event commentary. Event commentators do important things like analyze the competitors and force everyone to do the wave. “Blow a big kiss to our Olympic family!” one screamed at the ski jump crowd. “Mmmmwaa!”

The job of the commentators up in the booth is not to be confused with the job of commentator in the crowd, whose task is to make everyone hate him, usually by deciding every seven minutes to scream, “Are you ready to make some NOISE???!!” The usual answer: Yes, fine, but grudgingly.

(At the ski jump, the commentators were also charged with explaining to neophytes that each competitor’s final score relies in part on style points, which are – as they explained it – about “having style.” Glad we cleared that up.)

The day had started with glimpses of sun, but now a steady drizzle was falling. The relentless rain, the death on the luge track, the prop malfunction at the climactic moment of the Opening Ceremonies – I think we’re all beginning to wonder if somewhere along the way John Furlong crossed an old gypsy woman.

The “normal hill” ski jump event – off the shorter of the two ramps at Olympic Park – was ultimately won by Simon Ammann of Switzerland, with Poland’s Adam Malysz taking silver and Austria’s Gregor Schlierenzauer capturing bronze so far as you know or care. But the day’s real drama came when a German competitor at the top of the hill had to postpone his jump owing to a faulty zipper. They showed footage of the dismayed athlete sitting quietly while a coach or official attempted to resolve the crisis, mostly by yanking. A woman near me at the bottom of the hill said loudly, “No, no! Pull down first, then pull up.”

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