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Culture

The Hesitant Hero

Sunday's victory is only the latest for Olympic ski jumping champion Sven Hannawald, who has transformed himself in one year from an uncertain athlete with a penchant for injury into a legend.

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Sven Hannawald in yet another heavenly flight

At age 28, Sven Hannawald was getting to what, for most ski jumpers, are their golden years in the sport.

But then came the 2001/2002 Four Hills Tournament in Germany, which transformed Hannawald from a half-known ski jumper into a legend. At the Southern German tournament, he did something no one before him had succeeded in doing: He won each of the tournament's four jumps during the event's 50th anniversary.

It was a scene so perfect it seemed straight out of a movie: Against formidable competition from Finland's Matti Hautamäki, Hannewald, who was the last jumper of the day, succeeded in defending himself from the Finn's airborne onslaught. And in doing so, he wrote sporting history.

Hannewald entered into the legion of German sporting heroes -- a squadron of luminaries that runs from boxer Max Schmeling, to tennis hero Boris Becker, to racing giant Michael Schumacher and cyclist Jan Ulrich. And his leap to fame came with the side affects that often accompany fame: superlatives in the media, television appearances, ads, bags of fan mail, interviews, violations of his privacy, loads of money and, last but not least, numerous marriage proposals.

And on Sunday, Hannewald did it again, winning the opening jump of the 2002/2003 Four Hills event in Oberstdorf.

A clear head, a clean jump

But until his recent ascent, the future of the man dubbed by one German magazine as an "eagle with the angel's face" seemed a lot less certain. At one point he bruised his kidneys, at another he suffered a concussion. But more than anything, he didn't seem psychologically prepared for the huge ski jumping career ahead of him. Unlike his competitors, like friend and colleague Martin Schmitt, some viewed Hannawald as brooding, insecure and hesitant. At times, it even appeared that the 184 centimeter tall, 60 kilogram athlete might be suffering from an acute case of anorexia.

"If he can get his head cleared, he'll jump to victory," his trainer, Wolfgang Steiert, liked to say. And so he did: Hannawald went on to win two world championships. But his head has never been entirely clear -- the single constant in his career has been his regular crash landings after high jumps.

A ski jumping sex bomb

Sven Hannawald nach seinem zweiten Sprung bei Skisprung World Cup

Sven Hannawald

But the negative buzz around Hannawald quieted after his historic jumps at this year's Four Hills Tournament. Instead, the focus shifted to Hannawald the advertising commodity or Hannawald the heartthrob (photo). The tabloid press speculated why he still didn't have a girlfriend.

And in his native Erzgebirge region in eastern Germany, people were bemused by the "Winter Schumacher's" quick assimilation in his new life in western Germany's fabled Black Forest region, where he even picked up the local accent. Since moving, he speaks the local dialect almost as authentically as colleague Schmitt, who was born there.

It may be that a southern German accent is more marketable in the world of advertising than the lilt of his native town of Erlabrunn in the state of Saxony. After all, a Saxon accent didn't help his predecessors any. Take, for example, the case of Jens Weissflog, another famous ski jumper whose Saxon accent is believed to have squashed his chances at a successful career in the world of advertising and corporate sponsorship. Speaking roles in spots for Weissflog were unthinkable.

A breakdown of the system

The next crash came at the start of this year's World Cup season. At the first World Cup qualifying round in Kuusamo, Finland, Hannawald didn't even place within the Top 30 in two rounds. Trainer Steiert, whom Hannawald has affectionately called his "second father," had plenty of excuses -- temperatures of minus 25 degrees celsius, wind, his skies, a knee operation Hannawald underwent last summer. Whatever the case may be, Hannawald's "flight system collapsed," Steiert said.

Hannawald went into retreat, took a break from competition and began training more intensively. Now, Hannawald is back for this year's Four Hills Tournament. Just before Christmas he won World Cup qualifying at Engelberg and was selected as Athlete of the Year 2002. The timing couldn't have been better. Sponsors, fans and television broadcasters should all be pleased. With a considerable amount of help from the very marketable Hannawald, private broadcaster RTL has managed to transform the once overlooked sport of ski jumping into Germany's No. 3 television sporting event, falling just behind soccer and Formula One racing. And high ratings are expected as Hannawald hits the ramp this year.

This one's for the fans

But few believe he can repeat his historical performance -- not even Hannawald himself.

"I want to offer viewers something so that they don't waste their time tuning into ski jumping," he says. And you can take his word for it. For viewers are allowed to expect whatever they want from Hannawald -- but there's one thing he can guarantee they won't get -- and that's bored.

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  • Date 29.12.2002
  • Author Oliver Samson
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/32HD
  • Date 29.12.2002
  • Author Oliver Samson
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/32HD