Ski Jump Flyboys

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In ski jumping, perhaps more than any other winter sport, the athlete counts on forces beyond his control. You can swoop down the slope with your body aligned perfectly, but once you take off the wind can either decimate your distance or make you look as if you were born to fly. So when Adam Malysz, the star of the World Cup circuit this season and last, boldly suggested that "it's possible to win the Four Hills" — that is, to have enough control to do what had never been done and capture all four legs of ski jumping's Grand Slam — perhaps the sporting gods thought they had better teach him a lesson: Yes, Adam, maybe it's possible. But the one who wins will not be you.

It was Sven Hannawald. The 27-year-old German made history at the Four Hills this year, ruining what everyone thought would be the beginning of an "Olympic slam" for Malysz. Until the first hill (Obersdorf, Germany), Malysz, 23, had won six of his nine starts this season and placed no worse than fourth. But Hannawald's series sweep and wins at the next two contests gave the circuit something new — a rival to the Flying Pole and a real fight for king of the Olympic hill in Salt Lake City.

In some ways, it's fitting that Malysz and Hannawald are together atop the sport. Both grew up jumping — Adam made his first flight at the age of six, Sven when he was eight. For both, the early starts may have been too much. Both careers have been strong but marked by serious slumps. Malysz took a break after underperforming in Nagano; Hannawald suffered through a poor 2001 and contemplated quitting the sport.

The Pole's return to the top flight came with the help of coach Apoloniusz Tajner, physiologist Jerzy Zoladz and sports psychologist Jan Blecharz. The four deconstructed and reconstructed his technique and his mindset, a strategy that began paying off last season. At the 2001 Four Hills, Malysz racked up the highest overall point total in history. Since then, he has recorded 17 victories. Near the height of the hot streak, German jumper Martin Schmitt said that Malysz "has become almost unbeatable."

In Poland, Malysz mania erupted. Shops in his hometown of Wisla started selling teacups, posters, even cookies featuring their favorite son. Not since Wojciech Fortuna won gold at the 1972 Sapporo Games had a Pole delivered such results in winter sports. Malysz had photo ops with the President, tour buses driving past his house. Maybe the pressure and the adulation were just too much.

In his attempt to defend his Four Hills title, Malysz finished just fourth, with Hannawald taking all four wins. A host of little problems contributed to the big disappointment. "It was just after Christmas and he was not feeling good," says Jacek Kicielewski, Malysz's representative in Poland. Then there was his technique. "Timing is everything in ski jumping," Kicielewski says. Malysz's was off.

But Hannawald's was just right. It was a remarkable performance for anyone, but especially for Hanni, a sensation in Germany since 1998 when he won silver in Nagano. The media furor that came with success that season had distracted him. He needed to think about jumping. He muddled through 1999, fought back with a stellar 2000, then almost disappeared in 2001.

This season, the German team expected big things from Hannawald, and the win at the Four Hills showed that the expectations were justified. While illness had dogged him in the past, he had a healthy off-season in 2001. Those around him noticed renewed discipline. With his army career over, he was training with the team full-time, and despite steady media attention — typical articles included "Which of these women is perfect for Hanni?" — he was focused.

But since the Four Hills, Hannawald's one weakness — his confidence — has resurfaced. "At the Four Hills, he was everybody's darling. That's the way Sven Hannawald likes it," says Marcus Schick, Germany's team spokesman. "He was disappointed when the crowd was not positive in Zakopane," where Malysz won, two weeks after the Four Hills. Most jumpers wouldn't have let spectators' jeers bother them, especially since Zakopane is Malysz's home hill. But Hanna- wald griped afterward about the "unfair whistling" and said, "This was very depressing."

Reports from both camps say that Malysz and Hannawald have addressed their respective weaknesses. If they're both in top form, a split decision at the Games is a real possibility. While Malysz favors the normal (90-m) hill, Hanna-wald likes the large (120-m) one. And those who have quietly gone about their seasons could threaten. Watch third-ranked Andreas Widhölzl of Austria, who won two pre-Olympic meets that the top duo skipped, and Finland's Matti Hautamaeki, who sits fourth in the standings. While Malysz and Hannawald are still the best bets, in ski jumping you just never know which way the wind will blow.