Ski Jumping is one of the premier events of the Olympic Winter Games; the image of a ski jumper soaring through the sky with the Olympic rings painted on the snow below is one of the quintessential images of the winter sports festival - regardless of the edition.
When it comes to learning more about the sport and what it feels like to compete at the Winter Olympics, there might not be a better person to talk with than five-time Olympian Harada Masahiko.
The Japanese first competed in the Winter Olympics at Albertville 1992, before going on to win silver in the large hill team event at Lillehammer '94. But despite the amazing accomplishment of finishing on the podium at his second Olympics, Harada came so close to the gold medal in the large hill team event. Japan was leading the competition with just one jump to go. Harada, the team's best jumper, only needed a sub-par jump to grab the gold. Having jumped 122.0 m in the first round, he landed after only 97.5 m, and Japan moved down to second place.
He would return four years later to compete in front of his home crowd in Nagano, where he won bronze in the large hill individual event and successfully redeemed himself in the large hill team event with a massive 137m jump that secured Japan's first Olympic gold in the sport since 1972.
Olympics.com sat down with the two-time world champion to learn more about his coaching career, his favourite Olympic memories, and what he looks forward to the most for the upcoming Games at Beijing 2022.
Below is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Olympics.com (OC): How did you fall in love with ski jumping? What made you want to become a professional athlete?
Harada Masahiko (HM): I started skiing when I was 10 years old in the small town where I grew up. Next to the skiing area, I could see jumpers taking off from a ramp, and I wanted to try it out to see what it would feel like to fly.
When I first jumped and was flying through the air, I was really scared! I could hardly take off, but I also remember how good jumping made me feel.
After I jumped several times, I got this feeling that's hard to put into words. I wanted to enjoy the sensation again and fly more, and it's those feelings that inspired me to get into ski jumping.
To me, ski jumping was just fun. I just tried to increase the distance to fly farther, and I simply couldn't stop. Soon I was competing - and winning - in national competitions, and I gradually became more aware of the possibility of competing at the Olympics, and when I turned 20, I made that dream a reality!
OC: Are you still involved with ski jumping after your retirement? Do you still jump? How is your schedule different from when you were active?
HM: I was an active ski jumper until Torino 2006. After those Games, I received an offer from the team I competed with to coach future jumpers.
I am with the team every day. I go to the jump platform in the morning, take videos and support the athletes' training sessions. In the afternoon I work out at the gym with teammates. Therefore, I still live almost the same life as I did when I was competing.
OC: Is there any particular athlete who inspired you or that you consider to be a legend of your sport?
HM: Everyone who participated in the Olympics. Regardless of sport and whether they won medals or not, I respect every athlete who has competed at the Olympic Games.
OC: If you had to explain ski jumping to someone in a few words, what would you say?
HM: Simply that it feels like flying. I suppose there are very few people who have experience of ski jumping in the world, so I am proud to be one of them. It is a unique sport, and I love it.
Ski jumping in one minute
- The basics: In competition, jumps are evaluated by the distance travelled and the style of the jump. The men's individual normal hill and large hill competitions consist of two training sessions, a qualifier, and the final. In the men's team event (90m hill), there is a trial round and then two rounds of competition.
- The women's normal hill has no qualifying round and instead proceeds straight to the final, which consists of one trial jump and two rounds of scored jumps.
- The mixed team ski jump competition takes place on the normal hill with a woman-man-woman-man sequence, with the same scoring method as for the men’s competition.
- Olympic history: Ski Jumping has been part of the Winter Olympic programme since the first Olympic Winter Games at Chamonix 1924, when the men's large hill was the sole event.
- A normal hill competition was added for the 1964 Innsbruck Games, with the men's team large hill joining the programme in 1988. The women's competition was added in 2014, while the mixed team event is new for 2022.
- Olympic medals by nations: Norway has been the preeminent force in ski jumping, winning 35 medals (including 11 golds).
- Finland is second in the medal rankings with 22 (thanks to their 10 golds), with Austria third with 25 (but only six golds).
- Athlete Olympic medal leaders: Matti Nykanen (FIN) is the most decorated ski jumper in Olympic history, winning four golds and one silver. Simon Ammann (SUI) has also won four gold medals at the Games. Carina Vogt (GER) won the inaugural gold medal in women's ski jumping at Sochi 2014, while Maren Lundby (NOR) is the reigning Olympic champion. Sara Takanashi (JPN), who won bronze in PyeongChang bronze medallist, holds the record for most World Cup wins among all athletes with 60.
OC: What do you love most about ski jumping, and what is the most challenging part of it?
HM: Obviously in ski jumping you cannot fly forever, but we do try to push the limits and that's when the best results are produced. In the large hill event, you could reach 140 meters, which feels incredible - it's a sensation that only other ski jumpers know.
I am often asked, "How do you feel when you're flying?" I find it difficult to put the feeling into words.
However, in ski jumping sometimes natural ability counts for very little. You could take off perfectly, but if there's a sudden change in wind direction or force, your distance will inevitably be reduced. It can be incredibly frustrating to know that sometimes the results you achieve aren't an accurate reflection of your natural ability.
OC: What are the main skills someone needs to succeed in Ski Jumping?
HM: To some extent, it is necessary to be silly (laughs). I mean, ski jumping is a 'deep' sport; it's not good to think too much when you're jumping. Even if you think you've done a good jump, it may not work out on some occasions due to forces outside of your control. It can b very difficult and stressful to understand and accept every element of the sport.
OC: What is your favourite memory from competing at the Olympic Games?
HM: Obviously, Nagano 1998. It was a complete miracle I could participate at my home Olympics as an athlete, and then to win gold with my friends was an incredible moment of happiness.
The four years after competing at Lillehammer 1994 were an important time when I grew as a human being. The more I competed, the more pressure and fear I felt. But it's thanks to that pressure and fear that I grew, and I was able to overcome those doubts by sharpening my ski jumping skills, which led to winning gold at Nagano.
Albertville 1992 was also memorable because it was my first Olympics where I didn't feel any pressure. I recall seeing the Olympic rings everywhere, both in the city and the Olympic village; I was surprised to see Olympic logos even on plates during meals!
OC: What did it mean to qualify for the Olympics?
HM: Competing at the Olympics was my initial goal, but it changed over time. At first I just wanted to qualify and compete, but then I started focusing on getting results and trying to win medals. Looking back on my career now, I gained more from competing at the Games than just medals. I can't express what those things are in words, but simply put, I believe that I am who I am because of the Olympics.
OC: What do you think we can expect to see at Beijing 2022? Who are the medal candidates in ski jumping?
HM: This will be the first international ski jumping competition in China; there are no World Cups nor Olympic warm-up events due to the Covid pandemic. I am very much looking forward to seeing how Chinese people watch ski jumping in Beijing. I hope they - and the world audience will be enthusiastic about the sport.
I expect the Japanese to win gold in the team competition. It has been more than 20 years since Nagano, so I want to see Japanese athletes, such as Kobayashi Ryoyu, Sato Yukiya, Sara Takanashi and Ito Yuki make history and end up on the podium. But they will likely have a fierce battle with athletes from the European powerhouse nations of Austria, Germany and Poland.