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The Super Bowl of ski jumping

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BISCHOFSHOFEN, AUSTRIA – With the Super Bowl less than a month away, it’s nearly that time of year when the nation shifts its focus to the NFL’s championship game on that unofficial holiday. Few sporting events can compare, of course, so when I was told I would be attending the “Super Bowl of ski jumping” – the Four Hills tournament – I was a bit skeptical of this bold proclamation.

But, as someone who has now attended both sporting events, I can attest that it’s not far off.

Since 1952, the world’s best ski jumpers have competed in the Four Hills, officially the Vierschanzentournee, descending upon four cities in Germany and Austria every year for this eight-day competition in hopes of being crowned champion of this prestigious event. I hadn’t been in Germany for more than a few hours when I began seeing evidence of the Four Hills’ popularity. Posters in the Munich airport, billboards along the streets, pictures in the newspapers and on TV – this is a big deal, especially for the two host countries whose rivalry is filled with centuries of history.

Always donning their countries’ colors, the crowds came in astonishing numbers – over 100,000 throughout the competition – packing into these small venues for a chance to see their nation’s finest take off at over 55 miles per hour, traveling nearly the length of a football field-and-a-half. The skiing-mad Austrians would go wild when one of their athletes soared through the air. Waving Austrian flags created a sea of red and white in the Innsbruck and Bischofshofen stadiums and everyone shouted “ZZZ,” which I was told is supposed to be the sound a ski jumper’s flight makes.

Luckily for the Austrians, they have the best ski jumper in the world in Gregor Schlierenzauer, a 23-year-old phenom who’s already considered among the sport’s all-time greats. With a nearly flawless performance throughout the tournament, “Schlieri” clinched his second straight Four Hills title, sending the fans and local press into a frenzy. After his final jump in Bischofshofen, the young Austrian star basked in the moment at the bottom of the hill, pumping his skis toward the sky. When he finally lifted the Four Hills trophy above his head, the crowd erupted one final time, as fireworks lit up the night sky.

The Super Bowl metaphor certainly has its holes, but the Four Hills Tournament lived up to its billing.

Ashton Eaton seeks exit strategy with one decathlon box left to check

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 18:  Ashton Eaton of the United States competes in the Men's Decathlon Javelin Throw on Day 13 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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A defining moment of Ashton Eaton‘s career came at a competition where he could not take part. On May 30, 2015, Eaton withdrew before the start of a decathlon in Götzis, Austria, citing a back injury.

Götzis is the multi events’ Augusta National or Wimbledon. The decathlon world record was broken there three times since 1980, including the first 9,000-point score by Czech Roman Sebrle in 2001.

Eaton had never competed in Götzis, previously also withdrawing due to injury, and missing another chance at the annual meet clearly bothered him last year.

Yet Eaton still showed up. After all, his wife, Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, would compete in the heptathlon at the meet. But on that first day of competition, Eaton grabbed a microphone and addressed the stadium in a way that spoke to his character.

“This competition is not about me,” Eaton said to the crowd, a good number of them having shown up hoping to see Eaton challenge his world record in his first decathlon in 19 months. “Don’t make this Ashton Eaton isn’t competing thing part of this competition because that would be criminal. You would be stealing a great experience from all of the athletes.”

Today, the decathlon is far from the front of Eaton’s mind. He is coming off his second straight Olympic title and set to travel to British Columbia, Peru and Kenya with his wife the next several weeks.

Eaton has said he will retire from track and field before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He may not even compete past next season.

There is little left for Eaton to accomplish in the decathlon. He has two Olympic titles, two world titles and two world records. But there is one box left to check.

“I know I would want to do Götzis,” Eaton said in a phone interview while promoting sponsor QALO recently.

It’s not about righting a wrong or making up for withdrawing from the Austrian meet in 2013 and 2015 due to injuries.

“It’s more of a sense of missing out on something very cool,” Eaton said. “It’s the home of the multi events, really.”

Eaton isn’t ready to commit yet, but he could see a scenario where he trains through the Götzis meet in May and then decides if he wants to compete at the 2017 World Championships in London, where he won his first Olympic gold medal. He has a bye into worlds as the defending champion.

“It would be a nice bookend,” Eaton said.

When Eaton recently spoke with 1976 Olympic decathlon champion Caitlyn Jenner on the phone, Eaton had one main question: Was it tough to leave the sport?

Jenner never competed in another decathlon after the Montreal Games. Jenner woke the day after the 1976 decathlon, looked into a hotel mirror, naked except for the gold medal, and said, “What the hell am I going to do now?” according to Sports Illustrated.

Maybe Eaton knew this when he asked Jenner earlier this month. Regardless, he liked the response.

“I just looked back, and I said thanks for the great time and all the memories, and then moved on,” Jenner, who went on to endorsements galore to become America’s “Apple Pie Hero,” told him.

Eaton has fewer options than Jenner did, but certainly different and perhaps more ambitious ones, such as starting a university, according to The Associated Press.

“Track has shaped me a lot, and there will be a time to move on,” Eaton said. “I imagine it won’t be super difficult, because I’ll have fond memories.”

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Usain Bolt meets David Beckham

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Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, recently met former soccer star David Beckham at a restaurant.

Both global sporting icons posted similar photos on social media with similar captions Monday morning.

Beckham played midfield for Manchester United, and Bolt is a longtime fan of the soccer club.

Bolt, who is planning on retiring after the 2017 World Championships, was recently asked about the possibility of Manchester United while hosting a Facebook Live.

“If I had the chance to play for Manchester United, I would go right now,” he said, laughing. “I would retire and start playing futbol right now. That’s how much I really want to play for Manchester United.”

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Fastest man in the world .. I think that's all I need to say… ⚡️⚡️ pleasure to meet the best @usainbolt

A photo posted by David Beckham (@davidbeckham) on

No caption needed @davidbeckham

A photo posted by Usain St.Leo Bolt (@usainbolt) on