Ski flying is a winter sport discipline derived from ski jumping, in which much greater distances can be achieved. It is a form of competitive Nordic skiing where athletes descend individually at very fast speeds along a specially designed takeoff ramp using skis only; jump from the end of it with as much power as they can generate; then glide – or 'fly' – as far as possible down a steeply sloped hill; and ultimately land within a target zone in a stable manner. Points are awarded for distance and stylistic merit by five judges, and events are governed by the International Ski Federation (Fédération Internationale de Ski; FIS).
|Highest governing body||International Ski Federation|
|First contested||15 March 1936, Bloudkova velikanka, Planica, Kingdom of Yugoslavia (now Slovenia)|
|Team members||Single competitors, or teams of four|
|Venue||Ski jumping hill (185 m or larger)|
|Country or region|
The rules and scoring in ski flying are mostly the same as they are in ski jumping, and events under the discipline are usually contested as part of the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup season, but the hills (of which there are only five remaining, all in Europe) are constructed to different specifications in order to enable jumps of up to 66% longer in distance. There is also a stronger emphasis on aerodynamics and harnessing the wind, as well as an increased element of danger due to athletes flying much higher and faster than in ski jumping.
From its beginnings in the 1930s, ski flying has developed its own distinct history and since given rise to all of the sport's world records. The first hill designed specifically for ski flying was built in Yugoslavia in 1934, after which both Germany and Austria built their own hills in 1950. This was followed by Norway in 1966, the United States in 1970, and Czechoslovakia in 1980. From the 1960s to 1980s, a friendly rivalry between the European venues saw world records being set regularly, together with hill upgrades and evolutions in technique to fly longer distances.
Breaking the 100 metre barrier and the birth of ski flying
The origins of ski flying can be traced directly to 15 March 1936 in Planica, Slovenia (then a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), when 18-year-old Austrian Josef "Sepp" Bradl became the first man in history to land a ski jump of over 100 metres (330 ft). His world record jump of 101.5 m (333 ft) was set at Bloudkova velikanka ("Bloudek giant"), a new hill designed and completed in 1934 by engineers Stanko Bloudek and Ivan Rožman, together with Joso Gorec. With jumps now in the triple digits, Bloudek enthused: "That was no longer ski jumping. That was ski flying!" It was with these words that ski flying took on a life of its own. Such was the awe and disbelief at these massive jumps, the units of measurement were trivialised by the media, who suggested that the metre used in Yugoslavia was shorter than elsewhere in Europe.
Bradl later spoke fondly of the jump which made him an icon in the sport:
The air pushed violently against my chest; I leaned right into it and let it carry me. I had only one wish: to fly as far as possible! ... [After landing the jump], many thousands of curious eyes looked up at the judges' tower. I could hardly believe it when an additional '1' popped up on the scoreboard!
Dispute between the FIS and Planica
In the early 1930s, prior to the construction of Bloudkova velikanka, the FIS had deemed ski jumping hills with a K-point (German: Konstruktionspunkt) of 70 m (230 ft) to be the absolute largest permissible. Athletes who chose to compete on hills with a K-point of more than 80 m (260 ft) were outright denied a licence to jump, and events allowing for distances beyond 90 m (300 ft) were strongly discouraged – even denounced – on the grounds that they were unnecessarily dangerous and brought the sport into disrepute. Bloudek and his team nonetheless went ahead and flouted the rules in creating a so-called "mammoth hill" specifically designed for previously unimaginable distances. Bloudkova velikanka originally had a K-point of 90 m, by far the largest of any hill at the time, but was upgraded in less than two years to 106 m (348 ft) in eager anticipation of the 100+ m jumps to come. In 1938, exactly two years to the day of his milestone jump, Josef Bradl improved his world record by a wide margin to 107 m (351 ft).
After a period of wrangling and increasing public interest in the novelty of this new 'extreme' form of ski jumping, the FIS relented. In 1938, a decision was made at the fifteenth International Ski Congress in Helsinki, Finland, to allow for "experimental" hill design, thereby officially recognising ski flying as a sanctioned discipline. Despite this reluctant recognition, the FIS still frowned upon the practice of aiming predominantly for long distances over style, and to this day refuse to publish lists of world records in an official capacity. Furthermore, the rules for ski flying would not be fully established until after World War II.
In 1941, with the K-point increased further to 120 m (390 ft), the world record was broken five times in Planica: it went from 108 m (354 ft) to 118 m (387 ft) in a single day, shared between four athletes. After World War II had passed, Fritz Tschannen matched the K-point with a jump of 120 m in 1948. This marked the last time Planica would hold the world record for almost two decades, as emerging new hills would soon provide stern competition.
New hills across Europe
A challenger to Planica arrived in 1949 with the construction of Heini-Klopfer-Skiflugschanze ("Heini Klopfer ski flying hill") in Oberstdorf, West Germany. Designed by former ski jumper turned architect Heini Klopfer, as well as then-active ski jumpers Toni Brutscher and Sepp Weiler, the hill had a K-point of 120 m to match that of Bloudkova velikanka. The FIS, still wary of the rising popularity of ski flying and wanting to keep it in check, refused to sanction the construction of the hill, having previously denounced the 1947 and 1948 events in Planica.
The stance of the FIS eased once again, as the inaugural event in Oberstdorf was given approval to be staged in 1950. During this week-long event, an estimated crowd of altogether 100,000 witnessed the world record fall three times, with Dan Netzell claiming the final figure of 135 m (443 ft). Tauno Luiro eclipsed it the following year by jumping 139 m (456 ft), a world record which would stay in place for almost ten years until Jože Šlibar jumped 141 m (463 ft) in 1961. The past two decades of Planica holding a near-monopoly over the world record now seemed a distant memory, as it would instead be Oberstdorf's turn to do exactly the same.
Also in 1950, a ski flying hill was built at Kulm in Tauplitz/Bad Mitterndorf, Austria. Peter Lesser first equalled the world record there in 1962, improving it three years later to 145 m (476 ft). Another hill entered the scene in 1966, when Vikersundbakken ("Vikersund hill") in Vikersund, Norway was rebuilt to ski flying specifications, having originally opened as a ski jumping hill in 1936. On this newly rebuilt hill the world record was first equalled, then broken twice to end up at 154 m (505 ft) in 1967. Although hills in Norway were still at the forefront of ski jumping, their prominence in ski flying was short-lived, as it would be the last time Vikersund would hold a world record until four decades later.
Seeking to co-operate on hill design and event organisation, the venues at Kulm, Oberstdorf and Planica formed the KOP working group in 1962 (KOP being an abbreviation of Kulm/Oberstdorf/Planica). This group would go on to consult with the FIS in all aspects of ski flying, celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2012. In 1953, Kulm hosted the first International Ski Flying Week, which would be the premier event in ski flying until 1972.
Breaking the 150 metre barrier
In 1967, in Oberstdorf, Lars Grini became the first to reach 150 m (490 ft). Planica triumphantly reclaimed its world record in 1969 with a new hill named Velikanka bratov Gorišek ("Giant by brothers Gorišek"). This was the brainchild of Slovenian brothers Janez and Vlado Gorišek, both engineers, who opted to design a new hill with a K-point of 153 m (502 ft) instead of enlarging the adjacent Bloudkova velikanka, which was showing signs of deterioration. Today, Janez is affectionately called the "father" of modern ski flying and a revered figure in Slovenia. Bloudkova velikanka was subsequently recategorised as a ski jumping hill.
At the opening event of Velikanka bratov Gorišek, five world records were set: Bjørn Wirkola and Jiří Raška traded it among themselves four times, until Manfred Wolf ended their run with a jump of 165 m (541 ft). It can be said that competition between hill locations, all vying for world record honours, truly began at this time. The 1960s remains the decade with the highest amount of world records since the advent of ski flying, with seventeen in total being set on the hills in Oberstdorf, Planica, Kulm and Vikersund. By contrast the 1950s had the fewest with four, all being set in Oberstdorf.
Planica vs. Oberstdorf
The world record stayed in Planica for four years, during which the K-point at Velikanka bratov Gorišek was upgraded to 165 m in time for the inaugural Ski Flying World Championships in 1972, which eventually superseded International Ski Flying Week. This new event was sanctioned a year earlier by the FIS at their 28th International Ski Congress in Opatija, Croatia (then a part of Yugoslavia). Much like in 1938 when the discipline received official recognition from the FIS, another milestone had been reached as ski flying was now granted its own world championship-level event on par with the Ski Jumping World Championships, having spent almost four decades as a mere 'special attraction' alongside its older and more prestigious sibling.
With no world records set at the 1972 event, the organisers in Oberstdorf got to work by upgrading their hill to a K-point of 175 m (574 ft) for the 1973 Ski Flying World Championships. Janez Gorišek was brought in to oversee the project following Heini Klopfer's death in 1968. With the gauntlet laid down, the results were showcased immediately when Heinz Wossipiwo set a world record of 169 m (554 ft) in Oberstdorf. Determined to claim the world record for himself, Walter Steiner – the reigning Ski Flying World Champion – jumped 175 m (574 ft) and 179 m (587 ft) but crashed heavily on both attempts, sustaining a concussion and a fractured rib. He would finish the event with a silver medal, behind winner Hans-Georg Aschenbach.
A year later in Planica, in front of a 50,000-strong crowd, Steiner finally achieved the world record he had been striving for, landing a jump of 169 m to equal that of Wossipiwo in 1973. Spectators were astonished and the event organisers momentarily bewildered, as Steiner had landed well beyond the markers used to indicate distance alongside the hill, which only went as far as the existing K-point of 165 m. For the first time since their respective hills had been built, the competition was levelled between Oberstdorf and Planica. On the next day of the event in the latter, Steiner tried to go even further: he landed at 177 m (581 ft) but fell down on what was almost flat ground, although this time he managed to walk away (albeit on unsteady legs) with only cuts to his face.
Safety issues arise
All these increasingly long distances came at a price, as illustrated by filmmaker Werner Herzog in his 1974 documentary The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner. During both the aforementioned events in Oberstdorf and Planica, several athletes including Steiner had far exceeded the limits of the hill by 'out-jumping' it or simply 'running out of slope'. Jumps were much further than in the 1950s, during which the old Kongsberger technique was still in use. The results were now potentially fatal each time: athletes were coming only metres away from landing on completely flat ground, or the equivalent of falling from a multi-storey building. Furthermore, only a wool cap and goggles – or no headgear at all – were worn; an antiquated feature left unchanged from the very earliest days of ski jumping more than 150 years prior. In 1979, at their 32nd International Ski Congress in Nice, France, the FIS mandated helmets to be worn by athletes at all ski jumping and flying events.
In Herzog's documentary, Steiner is shown to reflect with trepidation in Oberstdorf:
Ski flying has reached the point where it's beginning to present real dangers. We've just about reached the limit, I believe, as far as speed is concerned. ... Maybe I'd prefer to turn back [and] go back to flying off 150- or 130-metre hills, but it's the thrill of flying so far that nevertheless gives me a kick.
Further down the hill and pointing to a wooden marker indicating Steiner's failed efforts, Herzog explains solemnly:
This mark is, in fact, the point where ski flying starts to be inhuman. Walter Steiner was in very great danger. If he'd flown 10 m (33 ft) more, he'd have landed down here on the flat. Just imagine, it's like falling from a height of 110 m (360 ft) onto a flat surface: to a certain death.
In Planica, Herzog quoted Steiner as having said that he felt like he was in an arena with 50,000 people waiting to see him crash. On the third day of the event, while talking to journalists after a jump, Steiner appeared jaded at the organisers' pressure on him to set more world records at the expense of his well-being: "They let me jump too far four times. That shouldn't happen. It's scandalous of those Yugoslav judges up there who are responsible."
The stalemate between the venues did not last long, as four world records were set in Oberstdorf within a span of four days in 1976, bringing the official figure up to 176 m (577 ft) set by Toni Innauer at the end of the event. Three years later, Planica drew level once again when Klaus Ostwald equalled the world record. Elsewhere, in the Western Hemisphere, the United States opened its own ski flying venue in 1970: Copper Peak in Ironwood, Michigan, had a K-point of 145 m, therefore not designed for world record distances from the outset. It is the only ski flying hill to have been built outside of Europe.
Harrachov joins in, Planica vs. Oberstdorf continues
Planica and Oberstdorf briefly had a new challenger when the Čerťák K165 hill in Harrachov, Czech Republic (then a part of Czechoslovakia), was opened in 1980. For one year, all three venues shared the world record when Armin Kogler jumped 176 m at Harrachov's opening event. He improved this to 180 m (590 ft) in 1981, this time in Oberstdorf. Notably, at the 1980 Harrachov event, 16-year-old rookie Steve Collins won all three competitions with jumps consistently close to world record figures. At the 1983 Ski Flying World Championships, Pavel Ploc brought the world record back to Harrachov (which had since been upgraded to K185) by jumping 181 m (594 ft); this remains the last time a world record was set there.
The issue of safety in ski flying became a serious talking point at the aforementioned 1983 event. In only a single day, the hill in Harrachov – a location named "Devil's Mountain" – became notorious for causing violent accidents. Horst Bulau crashed and suffered a concussion, while Steinar Bråten and Jens Weißflog had their own crashes. Ploc also crashed heavily in 1980 and 1985. All escaped serious injury, but it was a chilling precursor of more to come.
Over the next few years, the one-upmanship continued as the world record was again traded between Planica and Oberstdorf. In 1984, Matti Nykänen jumped 182 m (597 ft) twice on the same day in Oberstdorf. By improving this to 185 m (607 ft) the next day, Nykänen became the first athlete since Reidar Andersen in 1935 to set three world records in the space of 24 hours. It would be the end of an era as this was the last time a world record was set in Oberstdorf; altogether twenty were set there.
In 1985, to coincide with that year's Ski Flying World Championships, Planica underwent another upgrade to increase the K-point to 185 m. World records were again shattered as a result. Mike Holland first jumped 186 m (610 ft) to become the first American world record holder since Henry Hall in 1921. Nykänen would follow this up by landing a metre further. In the final round of that event, and in a show of dominance as he closed in on his second Ski Jumping World Cup title, Nykänen wowed the crowd with a jump of 191 m (627 ft) to punctuate his title win and effectively bring the Planica–Oberstdorf rivalry to a close.
Mike Holland later described his own jump:
Safety issues reach their peak
The 1986 Ski Flying World Championships in Kulm highlighted the dangers of the sport in a most graphic way. In the second competition of the event, Andreas Felder equalled the world record to win the gold medal, ahead of Nykänen who won bronze. All of this was overshadowed by a series of horrific accidents which took place earlier. In treacherous crosswind conditions, Masahiro Akimoto lost control moments after takeoff, falling suddenly from a height of 9 m (30 ft) onto his back. He suffered a fractured ankle in addition to chest and shoulder injuries. A few minutes later, Rolf Åge Berg frighteningly lost control at the same height, at an estimated takeoff speed of 112 kilometres per hour (70 mph), but was able to land safely on both skis.
Immediately afterwards, Ulf Findeisen fell out of the air on his jump, crashing down face-first from 9 m and flipping head over heels repeatedly along the slope, only coming to a stop several seconds later. Al Trautwig, commentating for American TV network ABC, likened Findeisen to "a ragdoll" after the fall. Former ski jumper Jeff Hastings, co-commentating, said: "I'm feeling a little sick to my stomach, Al... I can't believe this. I've never seen ski flying like this... So many falls." Findeisen was barely conscious and had to be stretchered away, later going into cardiac arrest but surviving.
In the next round of the competition, Berg attempted another jump but was not as fortunate this time: he fell out of the air, just as before, and crashed almost identically to Findeisen. One of Berg's skis, which had come loose after impact and was still attached to his foot, flailed around and hit him in the face – exposed due to his goggles detaching – as he was sliding to a stop. His injuries, including concussion and a broken ACL, were career-ending. At this point, Trautwig began calling into question the nature of the sport: "Jeff, we talk about the fear and why the ski flyers are scared... I'm really starting to ask, why we're here and why they're doing it."
Ski flying endured a static era beginning in 1987, when Piotr Fijas set a world record of 194 m (636 ft) in Planica. With height over the hills (athletes were reaching 15 m (49 ft) in Planica) and takeoff speeds (Pavel Ploc reached 115.6 km/h (71.8 mph) in Harrachov in 1983) at an all-time high, as well as distances approaching 200 m (660 ft), the FIS took a stance against record-hunting for safety reasons. From Felder's world record in 1986 onwards, the FIS implemented a rule in which distance points would not be awarded beyond 191 m; the jump would still count, but no points further than that could be achieved. Per this rule, Fijas' jump was officially scaled down to 191 m by the FIS, but the KOP group (led by the organisers in Kulm, Oberstdorf and Planica) independently recorded the actual figure. Neither Kulm nor Planica would hold a ski flying event for several years, leaving Oberstdorf and Vikersund to host the Ski Flying World Championships in 1988 and 1990, respectively. At those events, world record distances and major incidents were avoided.
New safety measures
The dangers of ski flying were still on full display at the 1992 Ski Flying World Championships in Harrachov, where Andreas Goldberger suffered a similar crash to the ones which occurred in Kulm in 1986. On the first day of the event, a few seconds into his jump, dangerous wind conditions forced Goldberger to lose control at a height of around 9 m and a speed of more than 107.4 km/h (66.7 mph), sending him plummeting face-first onto the hill below. He was taken by helicopter to a hospital, having sustained a broken arm and collarbone. František Jež also crashed, but was able to walk away with some help.
The second and final day was stopped and cancelled due to worsened weather, culminating in a high-speed fall on the outrun by Christof Duffner after he landed an unofficial, world record-equalling jump of 194 m. Goldberger's efforts from earlier in the event were enough to earn him a silver medal behind eventual winner Noriaki Kasai, who became the first non-European Ski Flying World Champion. Goldberger was able to return to top-level competition within less than a year.
Protective wind nets by the side of the hill were later installed in Harrachov for 1996 to minimise the effects of crosswind, along with major reprofiling of the slope to comply with FIS safety regulations. This reprofiling – particularly at the hill's highest point, known as the 'knoll' – was critical in reducing the fearsome height reached by athletes after takeoff, verified to be 15–18 m (49–59 ft) in 1980. Thanks to these modifications, athletes no longer jumped with as much height as before and no major accidents have occurred in Harrachov since 1992.
Speaking about his experience at the 1983 Ski Flying World Championships in Harrachov, Mike Holland said:
Technique changes: parallel to V-style
It was during this time that the entire sport of ski jumping underwent a significant transition in technique. Until the early 1990s nearly all athletes used the parallel style (or Däscher technique), in which the skis are held close together and parallel to each other. This had been the norm since the 1950s, with Matti Nykänen creating a variation in the 1980s with the skis pointed diagonally off to the side in a crude attempt to increase surface area, which yielded more distance. However, this came largely at the expense of stability and balance, akin to 'walking a tightrope' in mid-air and leaving athletes at the mercy of the elements. Akimoto, Findeisen, Berg, and Goldberger's accidents were all caused by unpredictable gusts of wind that made them lose control at the highest and fastest stage of their jumps, exacerbated by an outdated technique ill-suited to the new extremes of ski flying, as well as the prevalence of older hills featuring very steep slopes.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jan Boklöv pioneered the V-style: skis were instead spread outwards in an aerodynamic "V" shape, with the athlete's body lying much flatter between them. This created yet more surface area and lift, instantly enabling distances of up to ten per cent further. It also had a favourable effect of granting more stability in the air, although the peak speed was some 10 km/h (6.2 mph) slower than the parallel style. At first this new technique was looked upon unfavourably by the judges, who made it an issue to downgrade style points for those who used it. Nevertheless, within a few years, with Boklöv having won the 1988/89 Ski Jumping World Cup season and other athletes promptly adopting the technique, the judges' stance quietly eased and the V-style became the ubiquitous standard still used today.
The V-style itself had a transitional period of its own, going from a narrower "V" in the early to mid-1990s – which retained some features of the parallel style – to a much wider one at the end of the decade. Some athletes preferred to cross the back of the skis to exaggerate the "V" angle, while others leaned even more forward so that their body lay almost flat between the skis; both variations remain in use. The V-style was still not immune to failure if the air pressure under one ski was lost, but the results were much less catastrophic than with the parallel style; the latter had resulted in more head-first landings, whereas the V-style saw somewhat 'safer' landings on the back or shoulders.
Breaking the 200 metre barrier
In 1994, ski flying returned to a newly independent Slovenia, where the hill in Planica had been reprofiled with the aim of allowing for jumps of more than 200 m. The FIS was strongly against this and initially threatened to cancel the event on the grounds that its regulations on hill design had been violated. Negotiations between the organisers in Planica and the FIS managed to defuse the situation, allowing that year's Ski Flying World Championships to take place. Before the event, Espen Bredesen said: "Of course I want to be the first [to reach 200 m], but I think that 210 m (690 ft) or 215 m (705 ft) are also possible."
With most athletes having switched to the V-style, the sport was about to reach one of its biggest ever milestones. During the training round on the opening day of the event, Martin Höllwarth jumped 196 m (643 ft) to edge the world record ever closer to 200 m. This was the first time a world record had been set using the V-style, with Piotr Fijas' being the last to use the parallel style. Andreas Goldberger got tantalisingly close to the magic number when he landed at 202 m (663 ft) but failed to maintain his balance as he squatted down and touched the snow with his hands, rendering his jump an unofficial world record. The official honours went to Toni Nieminen only a short time later, who cleanly landed a history-making jump of 203 m (666 ft) to claim both the world record and the achievement of being the first ever ski jumper to break the 200 m barrier.
On the next day during the second training round, Christof Duffner almost had his moment of glory when he jumped 207 m (679 ft), but fell upon landing just as he had done two years earlier in Harrachov. In that same training round, Espen Bredesen claimed the world record for himself with a clean jump of 209 m (686 ft). The restrictive rule concerning jumps beyond 191 m, in place since 1986, was subsequently abolished by the FIS. However, as the rule was still in place at the time of Nieminen and Bredesen's jumps, their additional distances were nullified. This handed Jaroslav Sakala (with a jump of 185 m) the Ski Flying World Championship at the end of the event, which was shortened to only a single competition round due to strong winds forcing cancellation of the other.
In 2014, Nieminen spoke about the jump that cemented his name in the history books:
It was the kind of jump in which, even when arriving [at the bottom of the hill] in the landing position and not knowing at all what lies ahead, I remember that my legs were trembling. That's how terrified I was. ... Overcoming your own fears is the best feeling. The nature of the sport is that one has to challenge themselves. That's why this jump has remained a highlight of my career.
Beginning with Fijas's world record in 1987, Planica enjoyed a very long period of exclusivity. Much like in the 1930s and 1940s, no other hills would come close to reclaiming the accolade for 24 years, despite nearly all receiving K-point upgrades to 185 m. Only Ironwood remained unchanged at K145, staging its last event to date in 1994 with a hill record of 158 m (518 ft) shared between Werner Schuster and Mathias Wallner. Since then, the hill has served as a popular tourist attraction in which sightseers are able to access the top of the inrun via an elevator. In 2013, following almost two decades of disuse as a sporting venue, it was announced that the hill at Copper Peak would be renovated as the world's largest ski jumping hill, additionally capable of staging summer events.
With eight years between Fijas and Höllwarth's world records, it was the longest drought of unbroken records since that of Tauno Luiro from 1951 was broken by Jože Šlibar in 1961. The margin between Höllwarth and Nieminen's world records was 7 m (23 ft), the largest since Sepp Weiler and Dan Netzell in 1950, which was 8 m (26 ft). In Planica the hill was reprofiled again in 1997, and the world record was broken a further four times in the remainder of the decade, culminating with Tommy Ingebrigtsen jumping 219.5 m (720 ft) in 1999 to send ski flying into the new millennium.
Further changes in technique, equipment and hill profiles have seen the world record increase by more than 50 m (160 ft) over the past two decades. In 2000, the world record in Planica was improved by 5.5 m (18 ft), with jumps of 224.5 m (737 ft) by Thomas Hörl and 225 m (738 ft) by Andreas Goldberger. The latter stood for three years until being equalled by Adam Małysz in 2003, but his achievement was only temporary. On the same day, and in a span of the next four, Matti Hautamäki set a hat-trick of consecutive world records of 227.5 m (746 ft), 228.5 m (750 ft), and 231 m (758 ft); much like Matti Nykänen had done in 1984. When interviewed soon after the event, Hautamäki said that "The longer one stays in the air, the more fun it is."
Before the 2004 Ski Flying World Championships, the hill was renamed to Letalnica bratov Gorišek ("Flying hill by brothers Gorišek"). In 2005, the venue continued its dominance of ski flying when the world record was shattered four times on the same day. Tommy Ingebrigtsen, Bjørn Einar Romøren, and Matti Hautamäki all traded records of 231 m, 234.5 m (769 ft), and 235.5 m (773 ft) respectively, with Romøren emerging victorious with a jump of 239 m (784 ft) to claim the final figure. Commentating for Finnish broadcaster MTV3, former world record holder Toni Nieminen remarked forebodingly after Romøren's jump that "the landing area is now practically completely flat ground."
Some minutes later, having already captured his second consecutive Ski Jumping World Cup title, Janne Ahonen went for broke when he caught a massive thermal updraft and stretched out a jump of 240 m (790 ft), only to fall from a dangerous height and slam down hard onto near-flat ground; his world record was rendered unofficial. MTV3 commentator Jani Uotila called it "A horrendous jump! This is all getting too dangerous now!", while co-commentator Nieminen explained that "When one comes down on flat ground, the impact is really hard." Ahonen was momentarily knocked out, but sustained no injuries. He was stretchered away and able to wave to the crowd, and returned later in the event to step onto the podium for winning the World Cup.
In the initial flight phase I thought, 'Oh damn, now we're going far.' Half way down the slope I got a warm feeling that, 'Yes, now it's a world record. This is certain to be a new world record.' Then as I flew further I realised, 'Oh no, this is not going to end well. This is really not going to end well. I'm going to break my legs at the least.' ... In reality I came down at 245 m (804 ft), but there was no more distance measuring equipment there. Experts have calculated that had I not brought down my jump, it would've flown at least 250 m (820 ft).
Major hill upgrades begin, Vikersund re-emerges
In the aftermath of the Planica event and following numerous near-flat ground landings, it became clear that ski flying had once again outgrown an older hill and needed enlarging in the years to come. In 2005, almost immediately after the conclusion of the World Cup season, talks were under way to upgrade the hill in Vikersund. This became a reality in mid-2010, when the FIS announced major rule changes at the 47th International Ski Congress in Antalya, Turkey, to allow for ski flying hills to be constructed to their largest sizes yet.
Vikersund was the first to undergo renovation to increase its K-point from 185 m to 195 m (640 ft), making it the largest flying hill in the world for several years, and the first one equipped for floodlit night events. Janez Gorišek, known for his expertise in ski flying hill design, was the leader of this project. Anticipating a renewed world record rivalry, organisers in Vikersund welcomed the healthy competition with Planica. The new facility was given a rousing introduction at its opening event in 2011, when Johan Remen Evensen jumped 243 m (797 ft) and 246.5 m (809 ft), returning the world record to Vikersund for the first time since 1967. This served as a preparation event for the 2012 Ski Flying World Championships, which went on to draw a crowd of 60,000.
Breaking the 250 metre barrier
Another K-point modification in Vikersund (this time to 200 m) resulted in the coveted 250 m barrier being reached in 2015, with Peter Prevc landing a clean jump right on the mark to claim another historic milestone in the sport. Prevc's triumph was short-lived when Anders Fannemel broke this figure only a day later, landing a jump of 251.5 m (825 ft). At the same event, prior to Fannemel's jump, Dmitry Vassiliev crashed hard onto near-flat ground at 254 m (833 ft) in a similar way to Janne Ahonen in Planica a decade earlier; this nonetheless gave Vassiliev unofficially the furthest distance ever reached in ski flying to date.
Further hill upgrades
Between 2015 and 2017, upgrades from K185 to K200 were also completed in Kulm, Planica, and Oberstdorf. In 2018, the hill sizes on all active flying hills were upgraded to 235–240 m, making them fully equipped for jumps exceeding those distances (previous hill records were broken at each opening event), as well as having improved facilities for athletes and spectators. Harrachov remains the only hill, at K185, to have not been upgraded in any major way since the 1990s. Although the new hills are much larger than ever before, they generally feature longer and less steeply angled slopes, designed purely for the V-style and with the knowledge of 80 years' worth of world record progression.
Inrun tables have also been placed further back from the knoll and flight curves made shallower in order to allow athletes to glide more efficiently and safely along the contour of the slope. This has significantly reduced such precarious heights over the knoll as was the case in the early 1990s and prior: in that era, athletes using the parallel style would jump in a more upward trajectory off the table, reaching vast heights but at the expense of distance; and rather than glide, they instead plummeted towards the slope. Today, Kulm and Planica remain extremely steep in the flight phase; Oberstdorf and Vikersund, by comparison, have longer slopes and do not enable as much height over the knoll.
At the end of the 2015 World Cup season, following Prevc and Fannemel's world records, FIS race director Walter Hofer stated that the limit had been reached on the newest hills, and that no further expansion to their size was expected in the near future. He also noted in 2011 that the FIS rules on hill sizes would likely remain unchanged for another decade. Despite this, Janez Gorišek has made plans for a 300 m (980 ft) hill in Planica, albeit put on hold until the FIS rules are again changed. Fannemel said in 2015 that he believed 252 m (827 ft) was the limit in Vikersund, but that the world record could be broken again in Planica.
Beyond 250 metres
In 2016, rookie athlete Tilen Bartol came close to setting a new world record during a trial round in Planica, but crashed in a very dangerous way onto near-flat ground at 252 m and almost broke his neck. In 2017, Robert Johansson landed an official world record of 252 m in Vikersund, which was broken only half an hour later by Stefan Kraft with a jump of 253.5 m (832 ft); this remains the current world record in ski flying. The Vikersund event was staged as the finale of the inaugural Raw Air tournament, which was won by Kraft. The event also saw an unprecedented number of jumps surpassing 230 m and 240 m, new national records, and new personal best distances by exceptionally many athletes.
Kraft said of his world record:
Although his achievement initially came under scrunity, as it appeared that he touched the snow with his backside as he was forced to squat down on essentially flat ground, slow-motion replay analysis confirmed that his landing was valid with only millimetres to spare. A week later, Planica caught up to Vikersund with a plethora of more personal bests, and three athletes – including Kraft, twice – landing jumps of, or beyond, 250 m. Kamil Stoch would set a hill record of 251.5 m, with the season finale competition drawing an attendance of 16,500. In 2018, in Planica, Gregor Schlierenzauer equalled the world record of 253.5 m but touched the snow with his hands upon landing.
Differences to ski jumping
Unlike ski jumping, which can be contested in the summer on specially equipped hills with plastic surfaces, ski flying is strictly a winter sport and not part of the Winter Olympics; no world records have therefore been set in the history of the Olympics. Also in contrast to ski jumping, athletes are not able to practice on ski flying hills out-of-season, as they are sanctioned only for competition events. Among the Alpine countries there was an unwritten gentlemen's agreement forbidding athletes under the age of 18 to participate in ski flying events, but exceptions were made for 17-year-old Domen Prevc in 2017 and for 18-year-old Timi Zajc in 2018.
Rather than being considered a separate sport on its own, ski flying is essentially an offshoot of ski jumping involving larger hills and longer jump distances. According to former US national ski jumping coach Larry Stone, "It's the same thing, just bigger. You're going faster and flying higher. ... Basically, it's just a real big jump." The competitive standard for distance in ski flying is in the range of 230–240 m, with 254 m being the absolute longest distance reached to date, at Vikersundbakken in Norway. By comparison, distances of 120–140 m (390–460 ft) are the standard on most ski jumping hills, and the longest distance to date is 152 m (499 ft), set at Mühlenkopfschanze in Germany.
The main difference between ski flying and ski jumping pertains to hill design, as mandated by the FIS. Historically, hills with a K-point (German: Konstruktionspunkt) – or target landing zone – of more than 145 m were classed as ski flying hills. As jump distances increased by the decade, so did a small number of unique hills at locations seeking to outdo each other in a friendly rivalry for world record honours. Since 1980, there have only been five of these hills in Europe and one in the US.
On all active ski flying hills, the K-point is set between 185–200 m; far greater than the largest ski jumping hills, which only have K-points of up to 130 m (430 ft). The hill size, which is the total length of the slope from the table down to a certain distance beyond the K-point, is set between 210–240 m on ski flying hills; on ski jumping hills it is a maximum of 145 m (476 ft). In the landing zone, the angle of the hill is between 33.2–35 degrees.
Seven ski flying hills in total were constructed between 1934 and 1980, with subsequent renovations being made in the decades since. Six are currently in use, but only five of them as flying hills. The joint largest hills in the world are Vikersundbakken in Norway and Letalnica bratov Gorišek in Slovenia. The joint second largest are Kulm in Austria and Heini-Klopfer-Skiflugschanze in Germany. The smallest is Čerťák in the Czech Republic.
|Opened||Hill name||Location||K-point||Hill size||Hill record holder||Hill record distance||Ref.|
|1934||Bloudkova velikanka||K130||HS 140||147.5 m (484 ft)|
|1936||Vikersundbakken||K200||HS 240||253.5 m (832 ft)|
|1950||Kulm||HS 235||244 m (801 ft)|
|Heini-Klopfer-Skiflugschanze||HS 235||238.5 m (782 ft)|
|1969||Letalnica bratov Gorišek||HS 240||252 m (827 ft)|
|1970||Copper Peak||K145||HS 175||158 m (518 ft)|
|1980||Čerťák||K185||HS 210||214.5 m (704 ft)|
There have been a number of proposed ski flying hills, most of which never reached the construction stage. Two were announced in 2007 in Finland, in Kemijärvi and Ylitornio, but neither project was realized. In Norway, prior to the renovation of Vikersund, there were serious talks about constructing a new ski flying hill at Rødkleiva in Oslo. The most recent proposal has come from China, together with German architects Graft, who are in the development stages of a ski jumping and flying hill complex at the Wangtiane ski resort in the Changbai Mountains.
In the US, plans are ongoing to reopen Copper Peak, the only ski flying hill built outside of Europe. It would remain the smallest of the active hills, but the only one equipped for summer events and out-of-competition training.
The most prestigious event in ski flying is the World Championships, which was first held in Planica in 1972 and has been staged biennially since 1988, in a rotating schedule at all hills except Ironwood. The World Championships replaced various incarnations of International Ski Flying Week, which ran from 1953 to 1989. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded after two competitions, with the total points winner receiving the title of Ski Flying World Champion. A team competition was introduced in 2004, in which medals are also awarded.
Ski flying events outside of the World Championships are a regular feature on the Ski Jumping World Cup calendar, usually occurring on two or three hills; unusually, the 2018 season staged events on four hills (one as part of the World Championships, three in the World Cup). Because athletes almost always participate in both disciplines, points scored in ski flying also count towards the Ski Jumping World Cup standings. From 1991 to 2001, and from 2009 onwards, an additional title and trophy for the Ski Flying World Cup has been awarded at the end of each season to the overall points winner of solely ski flying competitions, even if only one took place.
Rules and technique
Ski flyers take off at speeds of 96–110 km/h (60–68 mph), flying as high as 10 m (33 ft) above the slope, accelerating to 120–130 km/h (75–81 mph) before landing, and spending almost ten seconds in the air. All these figures are considerably less in ski jumping. David Goldstrom, longtime commentator for Eurosport, has described the appearance of ski flying as that of "flying like a bird".
The FIS race director, assistant race director, and jury (the latter consisting of the chief of competition, technical delegate, and assistant technical delegate) are a core team of personnel in charge of an entire event. Walter Hofer has been the FIS chief race director of ski flying and ski jumping events since 1992. Borek Sedlák, himself a former ski jumper, has been the assistant race director and second-in-command to Hofer since 2017. However, neither Hofer nor Sedlák are involved in the jury's decision-making with regards to gate changes; the jury is also served by different representatives for each competition.
Spectators at the venue watching from large screen displays, as well as viewers watching on TV, are able to see instant replays and on-screen graphics provided by the FIS, which display a multitude of detailed information.
A ski jump or ski flight begins from the inrun, a ramp structure at the top of the hill in the form of a tower, or set naturally against the hill formation. Access to this area is via ski lift or on foot. The inrun is 117.4–133.8 m (385–439 ft) in length, inclined at an angle of 35–38.7 degrees. Since the late 1980s, when the V-style began enabling jumps dangerously close to flat ground, the full length of a ski flying inrun has never been used due to safety reasons. At the bottom of the inrun – specifically the very tip or edge of the structure – is the table, which is set at a height of 2.42–4.75 m (7.9–15.6 ft) above the hill surface. Contrary to popular misconception, the table is declined downwards instead of upwards, with the angle of decline set between 10.5 and 11.25 degrees.
Near the top of the inrun, there is a start gate – a metal or wooden beam – on which an athlete sits and awaits their signal to jump via a set of traffic lights (green, amber, and red). These lights are operated directly by Borek Sedlák. An athlete may enter the gate when amber is shown. If red is shown after an athlete has entered the gate, the jury will have deemed the wind conditions to be unfavourable for a safe jump. The athlete must then carefully exit the gate as they had entered it and await another opportunity to jump. Failure to dismount the gate within ten to fifteen seconds of being shown a red light, or jumping without having been given the signal to go, will disqualify the athlete.
Wind speed is measured in metres per second (m/s) in the form of head-, tail- and crosswind components. In ski flying there are ten separate wind sectors that are measured along the hill, with five in a staggered arrangement on each side; in ski jumping there are seven or less sectors. A hard limit, or "corridor of tolerance", of 2 m/s (6.5 ft/s) is permitted in any one sector at a time: if the limit is exceeded, all pending jumps are halted until winds settle to an acceptable level. Weather conditions must be optimal in order to jump competitively and safely, therefore they are actively monitored by the jury, who continuously collaborate with the race directors in making decisions on how an event will progress. The resulting delays may last anywhere from under a minute, to many tens of minutes depending on how variable the conditions are.
The position of the start gate determines the takeoff speed, or inrun speed, creating a difference of as much as 10 km/h (6.2 mph) depending on whether the gate is set higher (thereby lengthening the inrun) or lower (shortening the inrun); the difference in height between individual gates is 0.5 m (1.6 ft). Based on the jury's decision, the gate position – of which there are several available numbers – is subject to being adjusted accordingly, including between each jump. In especially tricky conditions, athletes may sometimes be forced to exit and re-enter the gate multiple times before they are cleared to jump. The practice of gates being adjusted too often has become highly unpopular for athletes and audiences.
If conditions are normal and a green light is shown, the athlete's coach – who is situated in a coaches' section lower down the inrun with a flag in hand – gives them the final signal to go; coaches may sometimes have to whistle or give a shouted confirmation in low-visibility conditions. Once given this signal, the athlete must commit to their jump within ten seconds or else risk disqualification, and are no longer permitted to exit the gate. To begin descending the inrun, they drop down from the gate to a crouching position. Speed is rapidly picked up within seconds via built-in tracks, made from porcelain or ceramic, into which the skis are slotted. The athlete's streamlined crouch minimises air resistance along the inrun, and a further effort is made to reduce friction by not allowing the skis (which have wax applied to them) to bump too much against the sides of the tracks. Inrun speed is measured from the table using a radar gun.
No ski poles are used, and no assistance from others (such as being pushed from the gate) is allowed. In heavy snow conditions the tracks can become clogged up, which reduces inrun speed and may cause an unpredictable descent for athletes. Event personnel standing by the sides of the inrun are often assigned to use leaf blowers to prevent the tracks from clogging up with snow.
Takeoff and transition phase
Moments before being launched off the table, the athlete undergoes a sudden increase in g-force due to the curvature – or 'compression' – of the bottom of the inrun. They then initiate a very powerful, explosive jump that requires great leg strength. At this instant the skis are opened up into a horizontal "V" shape, legs straightened and spread apart, and arms held backwards as the athlete adopts their own unique flying position and enters the transition. This highly aerodynamic "V" essentially turns the athlete into a 'flying wing', and all of this takes place in only a tenth of a second before the transition is then "closed" and the flying position maintained until the end of the jump.
Timing is crucial and there is next to no margin for error at this phase: a jump that begins too early or late off the table can mean the difference between an excellent, average or poor effort. Each athlete has their own method of generating as much inrun speed as possible, depending on such intricacies as crouch depth, hip and knee angle, arm placement, or how far the torso is positioned over the knees. Body weight is also a significant factor (see power-to-weight ratio), which has led to some athletes' health becoming a concern over the past two decades.
The most challenging stage of the takeoff is carrying the speed forwards from the inrun with sufficient height over the knoll, and achieving the correct trajectory down the hill. The knoll is the highest point of the hill itself, from which it begins to slope downwards. On modern ski flying hills the table is placed considerably far back from the knoll, so as to reduce the steepness of the flight curve. Skilled athletes are able to aggressively 'snap' into the transition so as to clear the knoll with ease, thereby allowing them to focus completely on using their flying technique to maximise distance further down the hill. All athletes have greatly varying flight curves, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Those of the highest skill level can also consistently compensate for a lack of inrun speed with perfect timing off the table and an excellent transition.
However, there is a fine line between aggressiveness and over-aggressiveness at takeoff. One of the most common mistakes made by athletes, including those at world class level, is to raise the ski tips too much during the transition. This excessive angle of attack causes the skis to act more as a spoiler than an efficient aerodynamic device to cut through the air, resulting in more height than distance; a flight curve that is too steep or shallow is unfavourable. In a well-executed jump, athletes will spend several seconds longer airborne than in ski jumping – up to five seconds more – which requires a different level of skill in order to sustain flight for a longer period, and showcases how the role of aerodynamics is magnified in ski flying. Not all athletes who excel in ski jumping are able do so in ski flying (see the section on specialists), and it can be difficult for them to hone their skills in the latter due to the hills being off-limits when competitions are not staged.
Flight phase and equipment
Once the athlete has taken flight, characteristics similar to that of a glider come into force. Ski flyers are able to cover such tremendous distances and land safely primarily due to the skis they use, which are substantially wider and longer than their cross-country or Alpine skiing counterparts. Each ski is first clipped in securely at the front of the boot, which is placed nearer the tail end of the ski and has an exaggerated forward slant. The heel of the boot is then attached to a wedge on the ski using a hinged binding peg and backup strap, allowing the athlete to lean forward into their preferred aerodynamic position and spread the skis wide apart.
Much like aircraft wings, the skis are flexible to an extent, resulting in them bending and vibrating significantly upon takeoff. Maintaining stability in the air is paramount: a loss of balance, or a differential pressure under the skis, can lead to disaster (see list of ski flying accidents). A few athletes have a tendency to drift over to one side of the hill, a technical defiency which invariably shortens their jump distance.
Skilful use of headwind and thermal updrafts along various sections of the hill is used to generate additional lift, creating pressure under the oversized skis and enabling athletes to effectively ride on a 'cushion of air'. Mastering the wind conditions is an overwhelmingly important part of ski flying. A reasonable amount of headwind is favourable to a long jump as it has the effect of keeping the athlete aloft and delaying their descent back onto the hill. Conversely, despite providing somewhat of a boost in speed, a tailwind is unfavourable and tends to shorten a jump by pushing the athlete downwards towards the hill prematurely. Even more unfavourable are 'dead' conditions – or no wind at all – which can cause the air pressure to vanish unexpectedly in mid-jump and force the athlete to fall from a dangerous height.
In particular, a tailwind forms one of the most challenging aspects of clearing the knoll and achieving a competitive distance. A crosswind is just as challenging, as it can create dangerous instability in the air. Ideal headwind conditions can allow an athlete to 'catch' an updraft or 'bump' against it at various points of the hill – which always involves some degree of luck – and use it to glide even further, making for an impressive visual effect for audiences.
To further aid athletes in gliding as aerodynamically as possible, they wear a one-piece fabric bodysuit more similar to a wingsuit than a ski suit. It is composed of five layers and is both loose-fitting and porous enough to allow up to 52 litres (14 US gal) of air to enter and 40 l (11 US gal) to pass through. This generates yet more lift, but the amount of slack is stringently regulated by the FIS so as to not allow for excessive bagginess and thereby reducing its wingsuit-, sail- or parachute-like properties. In the early 2000s, bodysuits had reached exceptionally baggy proportions, resulting in humorous comparisons to flying squirrels. A ban on these baggy suits came into effect soon after, and today the level of slack for bodysuits is measured by FIS scrutineers at equipment control, led by Sepp Gratzer, before and after each jump. If the level is exceeded, that athlete is disqualified due to an equipment violation.
Landing phase and distance measurement
The ultimate aim is to land on, or ideally surpass, a line marked across the hill called the K-point, critical point, or calculation line. In order to attain the most points from the style judges, athletes strive for a Telemark landing: instead of landing with simply both feet together (a two-footed landing), one foot is planted clearly in front of the other (without sliding the skis), both feet held no more than four ski widths' apart, and the body held stable with a straight back and arms outstretched. This pose must be maintained until the outrun – a line at the very end of the hill, where the slope has fully flattened out – is reached. The exact placement of landing is measured between the athlete's front and back feet. Failing to make a Telemark landing results in a loss of style points. Considerably more points are lost if a landing fails before the outrun line, such as falling over or touching the ground with any part of the body except the feet. When the hill begins to flatten out, it becomes increasingly difficult to make a Telemark landing.
Jump distance is measured from the edge of the table to the placement of landing by increments of 0.5 m. This is done using electronic and video monitoring systems together with event personnel assigned to observe jumps by the side of the hill; the latter are known as distance measurers or backup judges, who are present in case the monitoring technology fails. If enough jumps exceed 95% of the hill size – the zone where the slope begins to flatten out – an immediate discussion is held between the jury and race director, which usually results in the start gate being lowered so as to reduce inrun speeds and therefore distances. For spectators and judges, increments of 5 m are clearly indicated by rows of fir across the hill; a painted red line is used for the K-point, and a dashed red line for the hill size. Both sides of the hill are also marked highly visible in red to indicate the landing zone, while the point beyond the hill size is marked in green on the sides. The current leading jump – the distance 'to beat' – is laser-projected as a bright green line across the hill, and is visible to everyone including TV viewers.
Scoring and judging
Ski flying uses the same points system as ski jumping, but with two differences. In ski jumping, an athlete who reaches the K-point receives 60 points as a base mark for distance; in ski flying it is 120 points. For every metre beyond the K-point, bonus points are awarded. In ski jumping, a metre has a value of 2 points for normal hills and 1.8 points for large hills; in ski flying, a metre is worth 1.2 points. These bonus points are then added to those received from reaching the K-point. Failing to reach the K-point instead results in a deduction of points from the base mark to the same aforementioned values. Examples:
- If an athlete lands a jump of 190 m (620 ft) on a ski flying hill with a K-point of 185 m, they will receive 126 points: 120 for reaching the K-point, plus 6 bonus points for 5 m (16 ft) beyond that (5 × 1.2 = 6)
- If an athlete lands a jump of 187.5 m (615 ft) on a hill with a K-point of 200 m, they will receive 105 points: from 120 which would have been the K-point, their failure to reach it by 12.5 m (41 ft) results in minus 15 distance points (12.5 × 1.2 = 15)
Another crucial element of scoring are style points awarded by the judges. Five representatives are selected from different countries, who are situated in an observation tower by the side of the hill. A new set of judges are selected for every competition. They each award points up to 20, in increments of 0.5, based on stylistic merit:
- An athlete's skis should be kept flat, steady and symmetrical during flight, avoiding excessive 'paddling' or an inward cant
- Good balance, an efficient body position and posture should be maintained with minimal arm movement
- The landing should be in a Telemark manner
- If a Telemark landing is not made, 2 style points are deducted
- If a landing is made but fails before the outrun line, a maximum of 5 style points must be deducted
Notably, both the highest and lowest judges' scores are omitted to cancel out any discrepancy, giving a maximum of 60 style points. A perfect jump on a K200 hill would therefore garner a minimum of 180 points (120 distance points + 60 style points) or more, depending on bonus points. However, such a scenario is only an example and not representative of the highly variable nature of the sport. Gaining one or more scores of 20 is very rare, and five is extremely rare. Generally, a good to excellent jump can be expected to receive judges' scores of 18 to 19.5. While a lower score for style puts an athlete at the risk of being less competitive, this may be mitigated or even nullified if they have attained substantial bonus points for distance.
Wind and gate compensation
For the 2010 Ski Flying World Cup season, beginning in Oberstdorf, and from thereon used at all ski flying and ski jumping events, a supplementary points system was introduced. This system takes into account the wind speed and direction during each jump, as well as mid-round start gate adjustments, in order to enable a more fair contest. If a headwind is present, this is deemed as wind-assistance and unfairly advantageous, and points are therefore deducted as compensation; if a tailwind is present, this is deemed to be a disadvantage and additional points are awarded instead. The amount of deduction or addition is calculated via linear coefficient using complex instrumentation which analyses the wind conditions at the time of a jump, and the value of the points themselves are in minimum increments of 0.1.
The second aspect of the compensation system involves the start gate position. If the gate is changed at any point during a round after at least one athlete has jumped, then all subsequent athletes are individually penalised with a points deduction based on how many positions the gate was moved up, or awarded additional points for the gate being lowered. In variable wind conditions requiring either a higher or lower inrun speed than originally anticipated, it is not uncommon for many gate changes to be made as a round wears on. In the era prior to gate compensation, athletes who had jumped before a gate adjustment had to quickly make their way back up the hill to jump again, which was always logistically difficult to arrange due to time constraints. Collectively the system is known as wind/gate compensation, as points gained or lost due to the wind element are set against points gained or lost from gate changes, which is then reflected in an athlete's points score after a jump.
A less commonly used feature of gate compensation is that an athlete's coach may make a tactical decision to request a lower gate if they believe there is potential ground to be made in terms of points, at the cost of inrun speed.
A ski flying event consists of several preliminary stages, culminating in a competition to decide a winner and subsequent order. Within an event there are up to three competitions – individual, and sometimes team – all taking place on separate days. These competitions are contested somewhat differently depending on whether an event is staged as part of the Ski Flying World Championships or Ski Flying World Cup. In both events, a training round takes place on the opening day, as well as a trial round before each competition; these non-scoring rounds are practice or warm-up sessions, and athlete participation is optional.
Ski Flying World Championships
In this event there is a qualification round on the opening day, in which up to 70 athletes each jump once to ensure their place for the competition. 40 of these places are available in the first competition, which is narrowed down to 30 for the second competition and remains that way. The starting order of jumps in the qualification round is based on the athletes' current rank within the Ski Jumping World Cup standings in reverse order of points: the leader (who is assigned a distinctive yellow bib) jumps last. The result of qualification determines the order of jumps in the first competition round; the winner of the qualification receives prize money, and is again the last to jump.
The event proper is composed of two competitions, with two rounds each. In the very first round, all 40 qualified athletes complete a single jump. After points for distance and style are achieved, only the top 30 scorers from the first round proceed to the second, while the rest are eliminated from the event. In round two, the starting order is based on the results of the first round: the lowest scoring athlete jumps first, while the leader has the last jump of that competition. For the second competition, the starting order for round three uses the results from the first competition, with athletes again jumping in ascending order of points. After the fourth and final round, the athlete with the most points accumulated from both competitions is declared the Ski Flying World Champion.
Ski Flying World Cup
Events under the Ski Flying World Cup have several differences to the Ski Flying World Championships. The latter is an isolated, one-off event in the same vein as the Ski Jumping World Championships and Winter Olympics, whereas the Ski Flying World Cup is part of the overall Ski Jumping World Cup season, and uses the same points system. These points contribute towards both Ski Flying and Ski Jumping World Cup standings; the former being effectively a 'mini season' within the latter. A feature shared with the Ski Flying World Championships is that the starting order switches over from the Ski Jumping World Cup standings to the Ski Flying World Cup standings after the first qualification round of the latter, and remains that way for all subsequent events.
Much like in the Ski Jumping World Cup, events are composed of usually one or two individual competitions (rarely three, as was the case in both Vikersund and Planica in 2016), with a qualification round before each one. If there are two competitions, qualification for the second takes place on the same day. The limit of 40 places per competition still applies (unless a cancelled ski jumping competition is rescheduled to a flying hill), but unlike the Ski Flying World Championships, if an athlete fails to qualify for one competition they still have the opportunity to make a fresh start and qualify for the others. Eliminated athletes from qualification can also apply to be test jumpers or V-jumpers (German: Vorspringer) for the opportunity to gain further ski flying experience. If the very last competition of a World Cup season takes place on a ski flying hill, only the top-30 ranked athletes will participate as an 'invitational', with neither an elimination process after the first round, nor a qualification round.
To have a chance of winning a competition, two consistently good jumps must be made. If an athlete finds themselves in an uncompetitive position after the first round, their challenge in the second is to make up ground via the attrition of other athletes, their own distance and style points, and wind/gate compensation. For an athlete who had a poor jump in round one, it is possible for them to climb up the order in round two with an exceptional jump, and if other competitors fall by the wayside. Conversely, a high-scoring athlete may lose their advantage from round one if their second jump is not up to par.
A common situation in ski jumping, and especially ski flying due to the magnified risks overall, arises when unfavourable weather conditions cause a competition to be cut short or cancelled completely; it is also not uncommon for an entire event to be cancelled. Reasons include strong winds, a lack of (or too much) snow, or poor visibility for athletes and judges. In the case of a shortened competition, the scores from the first round (if completed) are used to determine the final result. This is called a single-round competition and still counts towards both the Ski Flying and Ski Jumping World Cup.
For the World Championships, if one of the two competitions is cancelled, the final result will be based on the competition that took place. Due to bad weather, all four competition rounds of a World Championship event have not been completed since 2010.
As in ski jumping, team competitions are often included at ski flying events. These are contested as part of the World Cup, but points instead count towards a separate Nations Cup for teams; athletes' individual World Cup standings are unaffected. A national team is made up of four athletes selected by their head coach. There can be upwards of eight teams from different countries, providing they are able to field a full team of four.
Just like individual competitions, there are two rounds, but with a difference. Each round is divided into four rotations, in which a member of every team jumps once in the same order. Points are scored the same as they are in individual competitions; however, an athlete's points for a jump are instead added to their team's total tally. The starting order of teams in the first round, and first three rotations of the second round, is based on their standings in the Nations Cup. Teams are narrowed down to eight for the second round based on points scored, with the same four athletes jumping in their order of rotation as before.
In the very last rotation, the starting order of teams switches to that of the points tally going in; the athlete on the leading team jumps last. The winning team is the one with the most points at the end of the competition, after which the top three final teams (or more in the event of a tie) participate in a podium ceremony.
A number of athletes have been regarded as ski flying specialists for their ability to consistently produce very long jumps and often world records. Those who are currently active with notable ski flying achievements include (as of 3 February 2018):
- Stefan Kraft – current world record holder with 253.5 m; nicknamed "Air Kraft" by Eurosport.
- Peter Prevc – 2016 World Champion; former world record holder; first to land a jump of 250 m.
- Robert Kranjec – 2012 World Champion; widely acknowledged as a ski flying expert.
- Robert Johansson – former world record holder.
- Jurij Tepeš – ski flying expert.
- Noriaki Kasai – 1992 World Champion.
Retired athletes who excelled at ski flying:
- Matti Nykänen – only five-time World Championship medallist (gold in 1985); only male five-time world record holder; described by Al Trautwig as "perhaps the most talented ski flyer around", and by Jeff Hastings as "the best aviator out there today; he knows how to fly." In a survey of contemporary athletes in 2018, Nykänen was voted the greatest ski jumper of all time.
- Matti Hautamäki – four-time world record holder; first to land a jump of 230 m.
- Martin Koch – ski flying expert.
- Johan Remen Evensen – two-time world record holder; first to land a jump of 240 m.
- Bjørn Einar Romøren – two-time world record holder.
- Tommy Ingebrigtsen – two-time world record holder.
- Walter Steiner – 1972 and 1977 World Champion; former world record holder.
- Andreas Goldberger – 1996 World Champion and runner-up in 1992; former world record holder; first to unofficially land a jump of 200 m.
- Sven Hannawald – 2000 and 2002 World Champion, runner-up in 1998.
- Roar Ljøkelsøy – 2004 and 2006 World Champion; described by David Goldstrom as "one of the top ski flyers of his time."
- Mike Holland – last American ski jumper to hold a world record; quoted as saying "Ski flying was my speciality."
Women in ski flying
Women have also had a presence in ski flying. Since 2003 the women's world record has stood at 200 m, set by Daniela Iraschko-Stolz in Kulm; on the same hill she holds the second longest distance for women, at 188 m (617 ft). Also in Kulm, Eva Ganster set an unprecedented six world records for women (an amount since unmatched by any woman or man) in a span of five days in 1997, bringing her personal best to a final figure of 167 m (548 ft). Despite these successes, women have yet to participate in ski flying at World Cup level. The first ever Ski Jumping World Cup season for women was held in 2011/12, but as of yet no ski flying events have been sanctioned. Sarah Hendrickson, Sara Takanashi, and Maren Lundby have all expressed a desire to try ski flying.
In 2004, four female athletes – Anette Sagen, Helena Olsson Smeby, Line Jahr, and Lindsey Van – were invited to perform test jumps prior to the men's 2004 Continental Cup event in Vikersund. However, this was initially blocked by Torbjørn Yggeseth, founder of the Ski Jumping World Cup and a member of the FIS technical committee at the time, on the grounds that it was too dangerous to allow women on ski flying hills. Sagen challenged this and eventually won the right to jump from the hill, along with her fellow athletes. Both Sagen and Smeby jumped 174.5 m (573 ft), which remains the third longest distance for women.
Slovenia vs. Norway rivalry
Ever since its inception in 1936, ski flying has centred around Slovenia, and more recently Norway. The very first recorded jumps of 100 and 200 m, together with a total of 41 world records, have been set on two different hills in the Alpine valley of Planica: Bloudkova velikanka, which has since been re-established as a ski jumping large hill, and its successor Letalnica bratov Gorišek, dubbed the "monster hill". Since 1997, with very few exceptions, the Ski Jumping World Cup has traditionally held its season finale in Planica. This takes place usually on Letalnica, but is occasionally moved to Bloudkova (most recently in 2014, during renovation at Letalnica).
After being renovated in 2011, Vikersundbakken in the Norwegian town of Vikersund has been the world's pre-eminent ski flying hill. Six world records—including the current one—have been set there, and it has also been dubbed the Monsterbakken ("monster hill"). All world records from 1987 onwards have been set exclusively in Planica and Vikersund.
Slovenian athletes were highly successful in Planica between 2012 and 2016, holding a near-lockout on the top spot in individual and team competitions. The four-day event in 2016 drew a total of 110,000 spectators, many of them Slovenians celebrating Peter Prevc's World Cup title victory. Since 2016, Norway has led the way in individual and team competitions, having won a total of three gold medals at the Ski Flying World Championships, and dominating 2018 in terms of the World Championships and Ski Flying World Cup.
When distances beyond 200 m were first reached in 1994, Norwegian athletes have been the most prominent world record setters, with eleven records set by seven athletes as of March 2017. Norwegian and Slovenian athletes in particular have gained a reputation for being experts at ski flying.
Due to the extreme speeds and heights involved, coupled with potentially hazardous and unpredictable wind conditions, ski flying has long had a reputation for being highly dangerous. It has been described as an extreme sport, and in terms such as "simply insane" and the "gnarlier, even more dangerous, faceplant-ridden cousin" of ski jumping. Although there have been no recorded fatalities, many serious accidents – known as "falls" or "crashes" – have occurred throughout its history on almost every hill.
As jumps have increased in distance, sometimes the absolute hill limit – designated as the fall line – is exceeded. This is known as "out-jumping the hill", "landing on the flat", or in the worst case a "flat-ground crash", which occurs when an athlete jumps too far beyond the safety of the slope and lands near, or onto, completely flat ground.
In other media
- "Die Luft drückte gewaltig gegen meine Brust, ich legte mich richtig drauf und ließ mich von ihr tragen. Ich hatte nur den einen Wunsch: immer so weiterfliegen! ... Viele tausend Augen starrten gespannt hinauf zum Kampfrichterturm. Ich konnte es fast nicht glauben, als neben der normalen Anzeigetafel eine 'Eins' herausgeklappt wurde!"
- Quoted directly from English subtitles.
- Quoted directly from English subtitles.
- Quoted directly from English subtitles.
- "Se oli sellainen hyppy, että vielä keulalle kun tuli laskuasennossa, eikä tiennyt yhtään mitä on vastassa, niin muistan kun jalat tärräsivät. Niin paljon hirvitti. ... Siitä juuri tulee ne parhaat fiilikset, että pystyy voittamaan omat pelot. Lajin luonne on sellainen, että on pakko haastaa itseään. Siksi tämä hyppy on jäänyt uralta kohokohtana mieleen."
- "Mitä kauemmin pysyy ilmassa, sen hauskempaa."
- "Voidaan sanoa että laskeutumispaikka on käytännössä jo täysin tasamaalla."
- "Kaamea hyppy! Nyt menee jo liian vaaralliseksi tämä touhu!"
- "Kun tullaan tasamaalle, niin toi isku on todella kova."
- Verbatim transcription: "It will be like, 250 m, if I doesn't take it down. ... After 250, I will be a dead man."
- "Alkuilmalennossa tuli ajatus, että ei vitsi, nyt lennetään pitkälle. Puolessa välissä rinnettä tuli lämmin ajatus, että jees, nyt tulee maailmanennätys, ihan varmasti tulee uusi maailmanennätys. ... Sitten lensin vielä pykälän eteenpäin, niin tajusin, että voi ei, nyt käy huonosti, nyt käy todella huonosti, jalat katkeaa vähintään. ... Tosiasiassa tulin alas 245 metrin kohdalla, mutta siellä ei ollut enää mittalaitteita. Asiantuntijat ovat laskeneet, että ilman sitä minun alasottoa hyppy olisi lentänyt ainakin 250 metriä."
- Vikersund has the shallowest angle; Planica has the steepest.
- Recategorised as a ski jumping hill after Letalnica bratov Gorišek came into use.
- Last hill record holder until the venue fell into disuse; does not apply to the current version of the hill.
- Recategorised from a ski jumping hill to a flying hill after renovation in 1966.
- Not in use since 1994. The organisers have since decided to renovate the facility with the capability of staging summer events.
- Kulm has the shortest inrun length at 117.4 m; Planica has the longest at 133.8 m.
- Harrachov has the shallowest inrun angle at 35°; Oberstdorf has the steepest at 38.7°.
- Vikersund has the lowest table height at 2.42 m; Kulm has the highest at 4.75 m.
- Harrachov has the shallowest table decline at 10.5°; Kulm has the steepest at 11.3°.
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