CALGARY, FEB. 14 -- Matti Nykanen, the Finn ski jumper who has at times been thrown off his national team and gone through alcohol rehabilitation, won the Olympic gold medal in the 70-meter event today, launching himself twice to near hill-record jumps.
Nykanen, who leads the World Cup competition this season, had two identical leaps of 89.5 meters on the hillside at Canada Olympic Park just outside of town, thrusting his hands in the air as he landed his second attempt. He won the gold medal despite a gusting tailwind that knocked down many jumpers. The hill record is 90.5, set by East German Ingo Lesser in 1986.
Nykanen's personal coach, Matti Pulli, said he was sure of the gold even while Nykanen was still in the air. "You could see it, because he was so far. It was impossible for anyone to jump as far. They'd have to be an angel."
Nykanen's second jump came after the Czechoslovakian team threatened to make a clean sweep of the event and gave him 221.9 points. Pavel Ploc had jumps of 84.5 and 87.0 meters for 212.1 points to briefly take the lead before Nykanen's last launch. Czech teammate Jiri Malec claimed the bronze medal with leaps of 88 and 85.5, but fewer style points than Ploc at 211.8 points.
Ploc, a former world ski flying champion, is second in World Cup standings and had beaten Nykanen once before. But not with the "Flying Finn" in such superb form, he said. Malec, a lesser known Czech was a surprise bronze medalist. The Czech team also had a fifth-place finish by Jiri Parma, the 1987 world champion. Afterwards, the two Czech medalists embraced at the foot of the hill and held fingers in the air.
"I knew I was in good form and if I got a good jump I would make it," Ploc said through an interpreter in the melee after the finish. "It feels like the national championships."
The Czech's two-three finish was something of an upset over East German Jens Weissflog, the defending Olympic champion. At Sarajevo, Weissflog won the gold in the 70-meter and the silver in the 90-meter, while Nykanen won the silver in the 70 and gold in the 90. But Wiessflog, while in third place in the World Cup, hasn't been jumping well lately.
"I've been having technical problems all year," he said. "There was a bad tailwind, but that was for everybody."
The top U.S. finisher was Mark Konapacke of Kingsford, Mich., whose initial jump of 83.5 placed him 14th but who struggled on his second for 79.0 to finish 18th overall.
The other three U.S. jumpers placed well below. The most disappointing was six-year U.S. team veteran Mike Holland of Norwich, Vt., who was 33rd with two sub-80 leaps. Holland had made the most impressive jump of the three training days, when he equaled Nykanen's 89.5 mark. He blamed today's distances of 79.5 and 74.5 on the wind.
"I did my job on the jumps, but the wind wasn't there to help me," Holland said.
Dennis McGrane of Littleton, Colo., was 43rd, while Rick Mewborn of Steamboat Springs was 54th in the field of 58.
As many jumpers remarked, the wind didn't seem to bother the very best of the field, especially not Nykanen, who paraded his skis triumphantly after his final jump. That kind of ability has carried him through some difficult times, including altercations with his coaches and the ski jumping federation. He spent several weeks in an alcohol rehabilitation center in 1986 and was thrown off the national team briefly just before last season. He was reinstated after an outpouring of protest from fans in Finland, to whom he is a hero.