Ski jumping is like golf. (The only difference is that you are the ball.)
BEIJING – Ski jumping is a fascinating, terrifying, sometimes boring, often exhilarating and ultimately confusing sport for the billions of people who have never ski jumped before.
But if you happen to ask the few who know what it’s like to ski jump – throw yourself off a perfectly good mountain, levitate a few hundred feet, stick the landing and look fabulous along the way – a surprising number of them offer the same answer.
They say ski jumping is like golf.
“Obviously, ski jumping has nothing to do with golf for most people,” said Billy Demong, Olympic gold medalist and USA Nordic executive director. “But when you’re an elite ski jumper, it’s a bit like golf. The only difference is that you are the ball.
The reason ski jumpers rely on comparisons for their particular obsession is that most people have no frame of reference for their sport. The number of Americans ski jumping is less than the population of a single golf course on a busy Saturday. None of the golfers would describe the game as ski jumping without the snow, but that’s only because none of them are familiar with ski jumping.
It’s Eddie Edwards. Kind of. The unlikely Olympian known as Eddie the Eagle became one of the least successful and most famous ski jumpers in history when he represented Britain at the 1988 Winter Games and finished so far behind the rest of the field that the sport changed its rules to ensure its race of unqualified athletes would never qualify again. The way he describes his deeply humiliating sport is the way golfers lament theirs.
“Ski jumping is 90% mental and 10% physical,” he said in an email.
Eddie the Eagle came last to his Olympics. Marius Lindvik could rank first in Beijing. But when it comes to golf, these ski jumpers are kindred spirits.
“Golf is a really technical sport, and you have to pay close attention to the little details that can have a huge impact,” said Lindvik, the Norwegian who won Saturday’s qualifying round. “The same applies to ski jumping.”
Lindvik chose golf during the pandemic as a convenient excuse to do something that didn’t involve flying with skis on, and he quickly became addicted to the sport’s escapist pleasures, that sense of refuge where the pressures of outside world cease to exist. Playing golf gave his mind a break from thinking about ski jumping. It didn’t matter that he was “not very good.” In fact, that was the goal.
He didn’t have time to be a good ski jumper and a good golfer. But being a bad golfer might just help Lindvik become a great ski jumper.
It turns out that the two sports quietly have many similarities. Both are physics experiments. Both require technique, rhythm and thought. Both punish nerves, anxiety and overthinking. The ski jump takeoff and golf swing are less than half a second long but need to be honed with lots of deliberate practice over a very long period of time. And both sports reward those who have done it so many times they forget about it.
“The best ski jumping is when you know what to do and you do it,” said Clas Brede Brathen, the Norwegian ski jumping team manager, managing to sound more like a putting guru.
If you think golf is psychological torture, try floating down a mountain in skin-tight lycra. The lead author of a recent article in Frontiers in Psychology was familiar with such mental angst: Before going to college, he was a ski jumper.
Vegard H. Sklett knew from his experience competing internationally for the mighty Norwegian team that his sport, like golf, was about more than physique, physiology and physical equipment. “You have to consider psychological factors as well,” he said.
He suspected that psychology was responsible for the change in their performance on a weekly basis, so he took advantage of his connections and soon found himself on the World Cup circuit, handing out envelopes with questionnaires stuffed with interior. Sklett’s guinea pigs were dozens of the best ski jumpers in the world.
By asking them to reflect on their state of mind just before launching into the air, he was able to identify the individual variables that affected their performance. One was the condition that greets every golfer squinting above water on an island green: worry.
“In ski jumping you worry a lot,” Sklett said. “If not, there is something wrong with you.”
The final source of uncertainty in ski jumping is the jump itself. The altitude, the wind and the specificities of course make each mountain distinct. “Everyone has their own personality,” said Jeff Hastings, an American ski jumper at the 1984 Olympics. “It’s like a golf course.”
There’s even a ski jump that’s not like a golf course. This is a golf course.
Anyone who catapults off the biggest hill in Westby, Wisconsin, soon lands in a strange place: the sixth fairway of the Snowflake Ski Club.
“Most club members play golf in the summer,” said Scott Yttri, “and scrape snow off the golf course for ski jumps in the winter.”
Write to Ben Cohen at [email protected]
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