Birger Ruud, the best of a talented bunch

Picture by IOC

The Ruud family, from the mining town of Kongsberg in south-west Norway, developed a strong ski jumping pedigree in the 1920s that would see them dominate the discipline during the 1930s. The eldest Ruud brother, Sigmund, earned a silver medal in the individual large hill event at the second-ever Winter Games in St. Moritz in 1928. Birger, the middle child and four years younger, showed great promise on the jumps from an early age. Finally, Asbjørn, the youngest, who was only 12 when his elder siblings were selected for the formidable Norwegian Olympic team bound for Lake Placid, would also eventually rule the ski jumping world for a time.

Sigmund Ruud was crowned world ski jumping champion in 1929 in Zakopane (POL). Birger followed in his footsteps in 1931, reigning supreme in Oberhof (GER) at the tender age of 19. Alongside compatriots Hans Beck (also a Kongsberg native) and Kaare Wahlberg, they formed a young and hungry Norwegian ski jumping unit that intended to capture every Olympic medal available to them in 1932.

The competition in Lake Placid began on 12 February on Intervales Ski Hill, in front of several thousand expectant fans. Beck, aged 20, laid down an impressive marker with his first jump of 71.50m, taking the lead ahead of Birger Ruud (66.5m).

For his second jump, Ruud, also 20 at the time, threw caution to the wind, producing a remarkable jump of 69m, while Beck, who had adopted a more conservative approach to guarantee victory, posted a distance of 63.50m. Birger Ruud therefore snatched the Olympic title with a combined score of 228.10, slightly better than Beck’s 227. Wahlberg made it a clean sweep of the medals for Norway with jumps of 62.50m and 64m for a total de 219.50 points. Sigmund Rudd, meanwhile, finished seventh (63m and 62.50m).

The three Ruud brothers would go on to exert their authority on the global ski jumping scene in the years that followed, each enjoying periods as world champion. But the most successful of the trio was undeniably Birger, who held onto his Olympic title in 1936 in Germany, where he also took part in the Games’ inaugural Alpine ski competition (the combined), recording the best time of the downhill portion. After joining the Norwegian resistance movement during the Second World War, he went on to claim a silver medal at St. Moritz 1948 at the grand old age of 36.

In 1994, Birger Ruud was chosen to light the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremony of the Lillehammer Games, but he had to relinquish the opportunity due to heart problems. The 86-year-old passed away on 13 June 1998 in his home town of Kongsberg, where a bronze sculpture of the jumper in full flight was erected in 1987.