January 19, 2006

Ski jumper Ahonen belies unsmiling image

By Laura Vinha

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Judged by the standards of his
flamboyant predecessor Matti Nykanen, Finnish ski jumper Janne
Ahonen is dull to the point of anonymity.

Nykanen, the first ski jumping Olympic double gold
medallist, was a national hero before his life began to unravel
in a sea of alcohol and assault convictions.

By contrast Ahonen, who is seeking his first Olympic title
in Turin next month, has been criticized at home for his lack
of visible emotion after more than a decade at the top.

The image, according to Pekka Holopainen from the Finnish
daily Ilta-Sanomat, is unfair.

"This flying dullard image is wrong," Holopainen told
Reuters. "When he started out he was 15 and very insecure. He
thought that if he did not smile and kept quiet he could not
screw up."

Certainly, Ahonen was all smiles after his dramatic tie in
the Four Hills tournament with Jakub Janda of the Czech
Republic this month. It was the first time in 54 years that the
title had been shared.

Ski jumping has been a niche winter sport in which the
Finns have enjoyed much success since the 1950s and Finland
team coach Tommi Nikunen says the danger involved is part of
the allure.


"Those who have succeeded in it have been mystical
characters, they've put their lives at risk and are thought of
as slightly peculiar," he told Reuters. "These kinds of people
are interesting."

Nikunen said Finland were targeting two Olympic medals in
Turin, one of them gold.

"It's clear that Janne is the person in our team on whose
back the pressures for success are stacked most heavily," he

In a telephone interview from Austria, Ahonen told Reuters
he was after a medal of any color.

After three Olympics Ahonen, 28, who rides motorcycles and
races drag cars in the off-season, has gathered only a team
silver from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

He made his ski jumping debut at the age of seven and has
been in the World Cup circuit since he was 15, making him one
of the most experienced top jumpers still in competition.

"His approach to ski jumping has been very professional
from the start," Arto Teronen, head of radio news at Finland's
national broadcaster YLE, who has reported on the sport for 30
years, told Reuters.

Ahonen said Nykanen and Germany's Jens Weissflog had been
his inspiration. He also said he never felt fear before one of
the Games' most spectacular events in which competitors hurtle
more than 100 meters through the air at speeds of close to 60
miles an hour.

"At the point when you start feeling scared you should no
longer be going up to the tower," said Ahonen. "I concentrate
on the jump, perhaps go through it in some way, but I don't
think about too many things anymore up there.

"I don't compile or think about statistics. I think the
statistics may start to interest the winners in decades' time,
when you're an old man and history in general becomes
interesting, but I don't think about them now."

(Additional reporting by Terhi Kinnunen)