Matti Nykänen: The greatest ski jumper, or the greatest tragedy?

By Paul J. MacArthur

HARRACHOV, Czech Republic (March 10, 2011) — A 47-year-old ski jumper stands atop a HS-40 ski jumping hill. His body isn’t what it used to be, abused by thousands of jumps and landings and a seemingly lifelong battle with alcohol. Still, he’s hopeful. The Finnish legend, whose likeness has appeared on his country’s postage stamps, has given up the bottle, been training hard, and believes he may be peaking for this competition. He proceeds to jump 34 and 36.5 meters. His longest jump on that hill is less than 20 percent of his former world record, but it’s good enough. Matti Nykänen, arguably the greatest ski jumper ever to step into a pair of boots, has won the gold medal at the Unofficial World Championship of Veterans.

Born on July 17, 1963, in Jyväskylä, Finland, Nykänen was eight years old when his father dared him to try a ski jump near the family home. Matti obliged and ski jumping quickly became an obsession. “The only thing I wanted was to jump,” Nykänen says in Matti: The Biography of Matti Nykänen by Egon Theiner. “And to jump, and to jump again.” On March 19, 1974, Nykänen entered his first contest, on a small eight-meter hill, and took first place in his age group. 

By the 1975­–76 season, Nykänen was jumping from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the week. The ski jumping hill in Jyväskylä had a chairlift and floodlight, allowing him to put in more jumps per day than rivals who lived elsewhere. Theiner credits this local advantage, Nykänen’s singular focus on ski jumping, and new training techniques developed by Nykänen’s coach, Matti Pulli, such as having his jumpers wear weight vests, for the Finn’s future success in the sport. There were also many subtle technical aspects to Nykänen’s jumps that enabled him to fly farther than anyone else.

Nykänen’s domination of the ski jumping world began on February 11, 1981, when he took home gold at the FIS Junior World Championships. He claimed his first victory in a World Cup competition on December 30, 1981 and his first World Cup title in 1983. At the 1984 Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Nykänen won gold on the large hill and silver on the normal hill. His 17.5-point margin of victory on the large hill remains the largest in Olympic history. “No one could really touch him, it seemed,” says former competitive ski jumper Michael Collins. “He was definitely the guy you looked to, you watched for technique, because he did stuff no one else did.”

In March 1984, Nykänen broke the ski jumping distance record twice at Oberstdorf, Germany. He repeated that feat in 1985 while becoming the first person to clear the 190-meter barrier with a 191-meter jump. He also took home the World Ski Flying Championship in the process. Nykänen added more World Cup titles to his collection in 1985, 1986 and 1988. At the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, he became the first ski jumper to score three gold medals in a single Olympic competition as he won the normal hill by 17 points, the large hill by 16.5 points, and led Finland to gold in the team event. On the large hill, 23 percent of Nykänen’s flight was beyond the K-point, a record in the parallel style era. 

By the time Nykänen retired, he’d rewritten the ski jumping record book in his own image with five Olympic medals, 46 World Cup victories, four Olympic gold medals (since tied by Simon Ammann), three individual Olympic gold medals (since passed by Ammann), four World Cup gold medals (since tied by Adam Malysz) and 76 World Cup podium appearances (since passed by Janne Ahonen and Malysz). “He was kind of a savant," says former USSA ski jumping coach Larry Stone. “He couldn’t tell you what he was doing, but he was absolutely the best in the world by so much for those years…He was a genius. Absolute genius.”

Flying high and falling far

Nykänen, however, possessed an Achilles heel: alcohol. The ski jumper started drinking when he was 14. By the mid 1980s, drinking was having negative impacts on his behavior and, occasionally, his performance. Fights, breaking windows with his bare hands, lockups in police holding tanks, drunken interviews, being sent home early from competitions—they were all part of a perpetual Nykänen hangover.

“They tried everything with Nykänen,” Stone says of the superstar’s coaches. “They made him take pills that would make him violently nauseous when he would take a drink. For every athlete that’s a wild man, you’ve got to find a balance that doesn’t destroy what makes them great, but by the same token try to keep them from destroying themselves. And sometimes you find that there’s no way.”

Alcohol abuse combined with the cumulative effects of injuries fueled Nykänen’s competitive decline. By 1991 the last great star of the parallel era was finished, but retirement didn’t calm him. Lacking an outlet for his hyperactivity, Nykänen did not adjust to post ski jumping life well and became even wilder. “I changed from a well-known system into a phase of insecurity,” Nykänen says in the biography Matti. “For all my life I had been doing something else and now that did not matter any longer … The world away from ski jumps was absolutely different from the one I knew so far.”

A stint as a pop singer in the early 1990s had a promising start, but soon fizzled. Financial problems quickly befell Nykänen, who peaked before big time prize and sponsor money was part of the ski jumping circuit. To deal with various debts, he reportedly bartered his gold medals, worked for a phone sex line and stripped at a Järvenpää casino. Nykänen’s been married five times, twice to millionaire sausage heiress Mervi Tapola, with whom he’s had a stormy relationship that has involved fights, restraining orders and more than a dozen filings for divorce.

Nykänen’s alcohol induced rages have led to brawls, knifings and domestic violence. He’s been incarcerated on several occasions, including a 13-month sentence in 2004 for stabbing a friend in a drunken brawl. Less than five days after his release on that charge, Nykänen was in prison again, this time for assaulting Tapola. “He’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Theiner says. “When sober, he’s one of the nicest and friendliest people I've ever met. When drunk, he’s dangerous and aggressive.”  

A return to the senior circuit and an International Masters Championship victory in February 2008 did not solve Nykänen’s problems. He was arrested again in December 2009, when, in yet another drunken rage, he reportedly drew a knife on Tapola and tried to strangle her with a bathrobe belt on Christmas Day. In August 2010, he was sentenced to 16 months in prison. The decision was recently upheld by the Court of Appeals, and at press time, he was appealing the sentence to the Supreme Court.

Still, there may be hope. The most recent reports about Nykänen are positive. He’s engaged to Susanna Ruotsalainen, a brand manager who gained some notoriety appearing on the Finnish version of The Apprentice.  Reportedly, Ruotsalainen has helped Nykänen give up alcohol and live a healthier lifestyle; his recent success on the veterans circuit being one sign of his healthy living. Nykänen also restarted his on again off again singing career and continues to make more positive headlines in Finland. The wedding between the two celebrities, however, has been postponed due to Nykänen’s legal issues.

“It won't last,” says Theiner of Nykänen’s new leaf. “Nobody can deal with the phenomenon Nykänen forever. And when you give him the possibility, he will drink and fight again.”