Robert Johansson of Norway competes in ski jumping at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler)

Kevin Bickner, an Olympian from Illinois, pointed to his brain and stated the obvious.

“You have to have something loose up here,” he told Minnesota’s Star Tribune the other day, “to find that enjoyable.”

By that, he meant shooting down a huge ramp on long skis, then taking off like a bird, flying a decent 800 feet or so in the air before landing on two feet, preferably without dying.

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Bickner is jumping for the United States in the Winter Olympics, the ultimate showcase for a sport with a long and unexpected history.

Though some people are partisan to the beauty and cadence of the Summer Olympics — the swimming, the diving, the gymnastics — the Winter Games are notable for athletes literally hurling their bodies at great speeds on dangerous frozen surfaces.

The bobsled. The luge. And, of course, the downhill skiers.

Athletes such as Bickner seem to be engaging in high-altitude suicidal acts.

So where on earth did this sport come from?

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Not surprisingly, it all began with some guy who wanted to show off for his buddies. His name was Ole Rye, and he was from Norway, a very cold country that has always excelled in the Winter Games.

It was 1808.

Rye was an officer in the Norwegian Army. One day, in the dead of winter, Rye wanted to show his men how well he could ski. And, of course, how brave he was. So Rye found a hill that looked similar but somewhat smaller than the hills Olympians jump from today. He went up, zoomed down on two skis, and soared about 30 feet.

That was impressive for the time. Now ski jumpers sneeze and travel farther.

Word spread around Norway, and eventually the notion of flying through the air on two skis and miraculously not dying took hold as a sport there, then throughout Europe, and then in the United States.

When the first Winter Olympics was held in 1924, ski jumping was one of the six sports included — although it was just for men at the time. There wasn’t a women’s event until 2014.


Norwegian Birger Ruud soars through the air at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games (CORR/AFP/Getty Images)

You’ll never guess who dominated Olympic ski jumping early on.

Yes, the Norwegians. They won the first six gold medals, from 1924 to 1952.

Two of those gold medals were won by a fellow named Birger Ruud, who has one of the most incredible stories in all of Olympic history.

Ruud was a pioneer in ski jumping, one of the earliest jumpers to use the V-method of jumping now standard today — leaning the torso forward in the air to make a V-shape with the skis. He won gold medals in 1932 and 1936.

But that’s not what makes his story so incredible.

When World War II began, Ruud was part of the Norwegian resistance movement, a vocal and influential opponent of Adolf Hitler and his followers. He was locked up in a concentration camp, his promising career seemingly cut short.

Ruud survived the war and in 1943, after he was released, became a coach for Norway’s ski-jumping team. He was in his mid-30s then — old for a ski jumper. (Bickner is 21.)

Still, he dreamed of jumping again. Who wouldn’t? What athlete, brave enough to take such leaps, wouldn’t want another shot? At the 1948 Olympics, Ruud got his chance. It’s the stuff of Olympic legend.


Norwegian ski jumper Birger Ruud in 1938. (AFP/Getty Images)

Ruud was listed as the team’s alternate jumper, meaning he’d jump if someone was injured or disqualified. The night before the competition, Ruud couldn’t stop thinking about competing one more time. He was the Michael Jordan of ski jumping in Norway. If Michael Jordan wants to shoot hoops, you let him shoot hoops.

Ruud wanted to jump, so Norway let him.

He landed in second place, a silver medal.

Ruud had won two gold medals in the Olympics’ most insane and dangerous sport. He survived a concentration camp. But for the rest of his life, he called second place — that silver — his greatest achievement.

How’s that for crazy? Or maybe the question is: How’s that for Olympic spirit?

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