Why we stink at ski jumping

And why there is still hope

If he weren’t so busy being a ski jumper, Eric Mitchell would make one fine Olympic volunteer. Like all those helpful folks wearing the light green uniforms in Vancouver and Whistler, the 17-year-old is polite, chipper and more than happy to answer any question—including this one: Why is your team so dreadful?

“We are a very, very committed group of ski jumpers,” Mitchell says, still smiling. “I know the results don’t look amazing on paper.”

That’s putting it mildly. Canada’s four-man squad came to the Vancouver Games with uninspiring expectations; Brent Morrice, the chairman of Ski Jumping Canada, said even one Top-20 finish would be reason to celebrate. Well, they didn’t come close to that. With a dead last showing in Monday’s team event, our ski jumpers actually performed worse in Whistler than they did four years ago in Turin. Only Stefan Read—the 22-year-old “veteran” of the team—managed anything better than a “Did Not Qualify.” He advanced to the second round of the large hill competition, ending up 46th out of 50.

“No, I’m not happy,” says Morrice, whose son, Trevor, is one of the four Canadian jumpers. “We could have done better. I don’t know exactly what the key is, but I know it takes four years of preparation, not four weeks, and I don’t think that we had enough focus throughout the last four years to do what we had to do.”

Forgive us, ski-jumping experts, but the results seem baffling. If any country appears destined to dominate the ramp, it’s Canada. We have snow. We have skis. We even have people who like to ski on snow. So what gives? Why aren’t our jumpers landing on the podium? Trevor Morrice, Brent’s son, sums it up best. “Ski jumping died in Canada for ten years,” he says. “And we had to rebuild slowly.”

And it’s still very much a work in progress.

The death of Canadian ski jumping can be traced back to the days of Horst Bulau, the legendary leaper who was blessed not only with talent, but with the greatest name in the history of sports. The Ottawa native spent the 1980s winning World Cup titles and contending for Olympic medals. At the Calgary Games in 1988, he finished 9th in the same event that Read just placed 46th. “We took our eye off the grassroots program and we focused mainly on Horst and the national team,” Brent Morrice says now, recalling those glory days. “Eventually, one by one, they quit, and we found ourselves without a team.” The well was so dried up that between 1994 and 2002, Canada didn’t even bother sending ski jumpers to the Winter Olympics.

It wasn’t until the late-1990s that a small group of volunteers in Alberta embarked on a plan to rebuild the sport in Canada. As Eric Mitchell recalls, he was just seven years old when he first saw the advertisement for junior ski-jumping classes at the Olympic Park in Calgary. “I told my dad I wanted to do it,” he says. “He didn’t know what it was, either.” Today, Mitchell’s dad is president of the Altius Nordic Ski Club, the one and only place in Canada that offers an entry-level program for aspiring jumpers. It’s no secret why all four of our Olympians (Read, Mitchell, Morrice and Mackenzie Boyd-Clowes) are all Altius products. There simply isn’t another club to choose from.

Brent Morrice hopes to change all that. Speaking passionately after his team’s forgettable Olympic performance, he said he is working hard to open the old jumps in Thunder Bay, Ont., which were closed a decade ago in the face of provincial budget cuts. He is also in talks with officials in Squamish, B.C., not far from Whistler, to construct their own junior training facility that will be a link to the pair of championship ramps built for the 2010 Games. “Look at this sport,” Morrice says, pointing at the packed bleachers behind him. “It’s a fantastic Olympic event, it’s sold out every Olympics, and people are electrified around here. Even the Canadians are electrified, even though we don’t have a winner. Ski Jumping Canada is committed to getting them winners, and we’re going to do what it takes to make that happen.”

Some dollar bills would certainly help. This season, the team received $125,000 in public funding, a paltry sum compared to the millions doled out for other, much more popular sports. Some of that money came from “Own the Podium,” but because the federal program typically rewards athletes who show promise in other international competitions, the ski jumpers didn’t exactly measure up. “Out of that money we need to pay two coaches, buy equipment, and travel across the world,” Morrice says. “It’s very difficult.” In fact, it may have been impossible if not for the generosity of well-known Vancouver chef Lesley Stowe, creator of the very popular cracker-like snack, Raincoast Crisps. The team’s primary sponsor, she donated $75,000 this season alone.

Indeed, Canada’s ski jumpers are hardly a spoiled bunch. Simon Ammann, who took home two golds this week, is a god in his home country of Switzerland. Sponsors line up at his door, endorsements are endless, and he has one job: to ski jump. Contrast that with Eric Mitchell, who works part-time at a French Connection clothing store when he’s not studying for high school exams. Or Stefan Read, who still lives with his parents and in between training runs waits tables at a golf course banquet hall. “They’re my number one sponsor,” he says of his folks. “We always joke around and say: Put ‘Mom and Dad’ on the helmet. Other guys have Red Bull.”

Read can laugh about it now, but in the weeks to come he will have some serious decisions to make. With two Olympics under his skis, the 22-year-old has more than enough potential to one day compete with the Simon Ammanns of the world. But is it worth the sacrifice? “We have fantastic athletes right up until they are about 17 or 18, but then if there is no future and there is no money, they’ve got to get on with their lives,” Morrice says. “They won’t continue ski jumping if they have to pay to ski jump on the national team. It’s very difficult for a guy like Stefan Read to continue in his 20s.”

Eric Mitchell is already worried about that scenario. He’ll be 21 at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, and 25 in 2018—when he is certain he will be good enough to challenge for a medal. “I love the sport so much that I am going to commit everything I possibly can to this, but the thing is we don’t have enough of a support system,” he says. “I’m finishing high school this year, and it’s really hard for athletes like me to really carry on in our sport because the next level isn’t very well set up for us. If mom and dad have got me this far, imagine what a full sponsor will be able to do for us. We have the people. We have the motivation.”

All that’s missing are the results.