KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Affable Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann could overtake one of the most mercurial Olympians ever with another successful Games.
But when Ammann is asked about the embattled four-time Olympic champion Matti Nykaenen, he doesn’t recall the Finn’s ski jumping accomplishments. Nor Nykaenen’s problems in retirement.
“Last year, we had a really nice basketball game,” Ammann said after training Thursday night. “He was really in a good mood. Everything was fine. We had legends against the active jumpers. It was super cool.
“I got his shirt after, with his sweat and everything.”
Ammann came from nowhere to sweep the normal and large hill competitions at the 2002 Olympics at age 20. At the time, his resemblance to Harry Potter gave Ammann a hint of fame in the U.S.
He swept the same events at the 2010 Olympics to match Nykaenen’s record of four career Olympic ski jumping golds – though one of Nykaenen’s was a team gold. He also drew within one of Nykaenen’s record of five career Olympic ski jumping medals of any color.
One gold in Sochi and two medals of any color would make Ammann the solo most decorated Olympic ski jumper ever in either view.
Ammann’s had his share of issues, capped by an equipment controversy and row with Austrians in 2010, but he’s dull compared to Nykaenen, who is now 50.
Here are some reported bullet points from the Finnish star since his triumphs at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics:
- Fell asleep at the wheel and drove off a bridge
- Engaged one week to a 17-year-old Estonian
- Worked for a sex-chat phone line
- Spent Christmas 2009 in jail after assaulting his estranged spouse, a sausage millionairess
- Stabbed a friend after losing a finger-pulling competition
- Worked as a stripper at a restaurant
- Celebrity chef
- Five marriages and bouts with depression and alcoholism
- Released three music albums
Ammann is aware that Nykaenen’s reputation has been torn to shreds, again and again.
“I never went to his concerts,” Ammann said. “I was always a bit afraid of seeing him in a bad way.”
To Nykaenen’s credit, he has barely been in the news the last few years.
As for Ammann, he would not appear to be a gold-medal threat in Sochi. He’s ranked sixth in the World Cup standings and wasn’t better than 19th in three trial jumps Thursday night.
But history proves Ammann can’t be counted out. He soared to double gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games with a blank résumé of zero World Cup wins and no World Championships medals.
After a dreadful 2006 Olympics, Ammann upstaged Austrian megastar Gregor Schlierenzauer with the longest Olympic jump ever in 2010. Two more golds.
He’s since earned a pilot’s license and married a Russian, the latter inspiring him to make a serious run toward Sochi. Ammann questioned his future following the 2010-11 season.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Ammann said, pointing out the highs of Vancouver and taking part in the 2011 World Championships on the world’s most famous ski jumping hill in Oslo, Norway. “And so I was not able to really get rid of ski jumping. I was trying in one part, but inside I felt that I really have to go on and really get one more task to prove myself – not even prove – but to really find again the core of this sport, to get into this sport with all this extreme games in your mind, which this sport of course has. This is a great game. I’m happy that I really accept it.”
Ammann said his goal in Sochi is one medal. The color doesn’t matter. But to win one gold, a record fifth for a ski jumper, what would that mean?
“First I have to do it, then you can ask me that again,” he joked. “Five medals in our sport, it’s huge. I’m happy with my four. I would be even more happy with a fifth, but just with whatever color the medal is.”
Ammann then paused, thought and waxed on. His reflective words were a stark contrast to his memorable childlike screams following his first gold medal 12 years ago.
“Really, I come here for ski jumping,” Ammann said. “I see it more clearly. In the long-term view in the approach, you see the gold medal. When the first picture comes out, you look at it and think, oh, it’s a nice one. But the closer I get, the more it’s really about the sport because this is what I judge myself at the end.”