Sailing through the air in Kuopio
Finnish ski jumpers have been at or close to the top of the world league since the 1950s. In quite recent years one of the main centres of their sport has been Kuopio, which currently contributes by far the majority of the jumpers on the national squad. Janne Ahonen, Matti Hautamäki, Mika Laitinen and Ari-Pekka Nikkola are truly world-class stars, and indeed Kuopio on its own could put out a squad to compete with any of the world's strongest national teams.
The Puijo Ski Club in Kuopio has everything that is needed for success: professional training and practice, the support of the city and sponsors, good year-round training conditions and, above all, motivated and gifted jumpers. Well-organised junior programmes ensure that the most promising youngsters are spotted and nurtured early on.
Ski-jumping is very telegenic, which is part of the explanation for its growing international popularity and increasingly commercial character. With more and more resources available to the discipline, the standard is rising so fast that last year's level of skill is of little avail today.
But the Puijo Ski Club has more than kept up with the quickening pace of competition.
"There is no one factor that explains our success," says Mika Kojonkoski, who trains the Kuopio Top Team. Nonetheless, he does emphasise one thing: professionalism.
Much more than in terms of finance, this should be understood as meaning a professional attitude to training and practice. It demands strong motivation on the part of players, who must put in at least 20-25 hours' practice a week. Year-round. On the other hand, no one would be able to do that and hold down another full-time job at the same time.
"Mental strength is the beginning and end of everything. We try to reinforce that aspect in every training situation. A strong team spirit and solid self-confidence on the part of individuals go hand-in-hand."
Strong self-confidence is particularly important, because ski-jumping is an extremely sensitive discipline in the sense of performance technique. With the skier plunging down the slope at 90 - 100 kilometres per hour, the take-off push has to be timed to a split second. Like most other aspects of ski-jumping, the biomechanics involved are the subject of intense scientific study.
At the University of Kuopio, Mika Kojonkoski is a researcher whose special interest in studying the central nervous system is how ski jumpers manage to control and coordinate their body movements. He points out: "The most successful are able to focus their attention better than anyone else when they play computer games. Perhaps that is what makes them champions."
Despite its name, ski jumping is more a matter of flying than of actually jumping. The aerodynamics of the discipline have been studied since the 1950s and are still keeping scientists busy. Connected with this is continual development of equipment.
"Being able to apply the results of research in training enables us to keep a year ahead of the competition," says Kojonkoski.