February 5, 2006

Ski jumpers Ahonen and Janda neck and neck

By Gideon Long

PRAGELATO, Italy (Reuters) - Finland's Janne Ahonen and
Jakub Janda of the Czech Republic are the clear favorites for
the Olympic ski jumping titles but, on the eve of the Turin
Games, there is little to choose between them.

The two men have dominated the World Cup season, opening up
a commanding lead over their rivals, but neither has managed to
shake off the other.

As if to underline how closely matched they are, they
finished neck and neck last month in the prestigious Four Hills
tournament, in which competitors jump at four different resorts
in Austria and Germany over the space of a week.

Ahonen won on two of the four hills and Janda on the other
two. Remarkably, when style points were taken into account,
both finished with an identical points tally and the title was
shared for the first time in the event's 54-year history.

"It's incredible," Janda said afterwards. "But a share of
the joy means there is twice as much joy."

Ahonen, 28, has the experience, having won the World Cup
title for the past two years, but Janda, a year younger, has
wrested the initiative from him this season, winning five World
Cup meetings to the Finn's two.


Ahonen is refusing to surrender though, and heads to Turin
in fine form having twice finished on the podium at a World Cup
meeting in the Polish resort of Zakopane last weekend.

Among the other competitors to watch are Ahonen's
compatriot Matti Hautamaeki, who took a bronze and a silver in
Salt Lake City in 2002 and also suggested a timely spike in
form by winning both jumps in Zakopane.

Norway's Roar Ljoekelsoey is a medal contender, as is Adam
Malysz of Poland, who won silver and bronze at Salt Lake.

Ski jumping is one of the most spectacular events at the
Olympics. Competitors hurl themselves down steep ramps and fly
through the air for over 100 meters at speeds close to 100 km
per hour (68 miles per hour).

At the last Olympics, Switzerland's Simon Ammann struck
gold in both the normal and large hill events, but has done
little to suggest he can retain his title.

He failed to make the podium at the 2003 and 2005 world
championships and is languishing in 16th place in this year's
World Cup standings.

The Swiss challenge at Pragelato, 80 kms (50 miles) from
Turin, is more likely to come from Andreas Kuettel, fourth in
the current World Cup.

China will make its Olympic ski jumping debut in Turin,
while Japan's Masahiko Harada will make a national record fifth
appearance in the Winter Olympics at the age of 37.