Matti Nykanen jumped the furthest but fell the quickest
Former ski jump world record holder died last week at the age of 55 after a hectic life
A memorial to late Finnish four-time Olympic ski jumping champion Matti Nykanen in Lahti, Finland. Photo: Kimmo Brandt/EPA
Matti Nykänen used to fly so far, so fast that it felt as if he would never come down. When the Finn broke the world ski jump record for the fifth, and final, time at Planica in 1985 he was moving so quickly that the cameraman struggled to track him through the air.
Watching the footage you wonder if he might disappear into the yonder off the far side of the screen. In those days, the mid-1980s, Nykänen was the best ski jumper in the world and almost unbeatable. The records were the least of it. He won five world titles, five Olympic medals, including three golds in one Games, and four World Cups.
Nykänen had an otherworldly talent but not the sense, or support, he needed to cope with the fame it won him. When he published his authorised biography in 2006 he called it Greetings From Hell. “Hell,” he said, “can’t be as bad as my life has been.”
He was one of the greatest Winter Olympic athletes and one the finest sportspeople Finland has ever had, and he was also a singer and a stripper, an alcoholic and a wife-beater. He died last week, at the age of 55. In one of his last public appearances, a singing gig in Helsinki, he told his audience: “Consider yourself lucky your name isn’t Matti Nykänen.”
The first time Nykänen tried ski jumping it was on a dare from his father. He was eight-years-old. That was on the hill in Jyväskylä, where he grew up, 150 miles north of Helsinki. He enjoyed jumping so much that he became obsessed with it. He was a hyperactive child and the sport became his outlet for all his excess energy.
“The only thing I wanted was to jump,” he said, “and to jump, and to jump again.” His local hill had a chairlift and floodlights, which meant he could go on late into the night. By the time he was 12 he was practising for nine hours a day, watched over by his canny coach, Matti Pulli.
Nykänen was just 18, and in his first full season on the senior circuit, when he won the world championship at Holmenkollen in Oslo, jumping in fog so thick that he could hardly see the end of his skis, let alone the bottom of the slope. In 1984, he won the Olympic gold on the large hill in Sarajevo, in a competition that became famous for his duel with the German jumper Jens Weissflog. At Calgary in 1988, where the British fell for Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, Nykänen swept all three gold medals, winning on the large hill and the normal hill and in the team event.
Even then, Nykänen’s drinking was a problem. He took his first sip when he was 14 and never really lost the taste for it. He was kicked off the national team once in 1985, and again in 1987, because his behaviour was so disruptive. “When he’s drunk and you say the wrong word,” his teammate Jari Puikkonen said at the time, “he’s going to hit you with his fists.” His biographer Egon Thiener said Nykänen had “a Jekyll and Hyde” personality. “When sober, he’s one of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve ever met. When drunk, he’s dangerous and aggressive.”
Later, long after he had quit jumping, Nykänen was sentenced to 26 months in prison after he stabbed a friend in the back, twice, because he beat him in a game of finger wrestling. They were so drunk that Nykänen explained he couldn’t remember anything about it. That was in 2004, when Nykänen was deep into his wilderness years. In the 90s he was talked into launching a pop career and, while his first album sold well, the second one bombed. He decided to try a spell in politics, then became a lounge singer in a local restaurant. He ended up selling his gold medals because he needed the cash.
At the end of the decade Nykänen was working as a stripper in a casino, where he was booed off stage because he refused to take all his clothes off. He appeared in a porn film, too, and took a job working on a phone line for a time, giving callers advice on their love lives. “I’m a marriage adviser these days,” he told the sportswriter Ian Chadband, “if things are going well then call me. I can fuck it up in seven seconds.” Nykänen was married six times, twice to the same woman, Mervi Tapola, who suffered horribly through the decade they were together. She filed for divorce 15 times before they finally split in 2010 after he was accused of trying to strangle her.
Eventually, a younger generation of Finns had forgotten why Nykänen was famous to begin with. They only knew him from the tabloids. Editors used to joke that he had sold more newspapers than anyone alive. His catchphrases became famous. “The odds are 50-60”, “every chance is an opportunity”, “life is live”, and “maybe I did, maybe I didn’t”. That last one ended up as the slogan for the cider he was shilling even while he was drinking himself to death. “We tried many, many ways to help him,” said his coach, Pulli. “We tried the clinics, but whenever he came back he would go drinking again.”
They say that in the last years of his life, Nykänen was getting better. He had married again and had apparently gone sober, though no one really knows whether it would have lasted. Matti Nykänen fell so far, so fast, it felt as if he could never get up. – Guardian service