Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Matti Nukes Adrift

September 3rd, 2010 · 10 Comments

Of the many death-defying sports that I’ve grown to admire over the years, few astound quite like elite ski jumping. Perhaps it’s not until you witness the sport in person that you really get a sense of just how bananas it is: TV can’t do justice to the true height of those hills, nor the vast distances that the competitors cover in the air. Given that I didn’t strap on a ski ’til late into my teens, and that I have occasional nightmares about getting swept over the Cliffs of Moher, I can imagine no other sport that I’d be less likely to try. My hats off to the men and women who earn their keep as ski jumpers.

Perhaps the greatest of these athletes was Matti Nykänen, a four-time Olympic gold medalist from Finland. At his youthful peak at the Calgary Games, “Matti Nukes” was nothing short of dominant—a human being who seemingly had been placed on this Earth to bridge the gap between man and bird. (Watch him at his finest here.)

But since retiring from the sport, Nykänen has revealed himself to be a deeply flawed individual. The Guardian recounted the champion’s sad decline earlier this year:

Before long, Nykänen was approached by a group of businessmen bent on transforming him into a recording artist: the initial brief was for the world’s best ski-jumper to record an album with the world’s worst, Eddie the Eagle. In the event, Nykänen’s first album, a compendium of perky Scando power pop, was released in 1992 and sold more than 25,000 copies. Plans for international endorsement deals were scuppered, however, by Nykänen’s complete inability to speak any foreign languages, leaving him thrashing around as the biggest fish in a familiar Nordic pond.

Beset by financial problems, Nykänen worked briefly for a premium-rate phoneline dispensing celebrity relationship advice; the equivalent in this country of calling up Live Genuine Essex Housewives and getting Paula Radcliffe on the phone. With a sense of clanging predictability, he was then jostled into the foothills of public office, only for the party built around him for the 1995 parliamentary elections to collapse at the last moment. From there it was a short step to his debut working as a striptease act in a restaurant (Nykänen claims to have retained his dignity by never appearing fully naked) and meeting sausage manufacturers Tapola with a view to finagling a sponsorship deal.

Instead, Nykänen fell in love with Tapola heiress Mervi Tapola, marrying her for the first time in 2001, then divorcing and marrying her again three years later. In the event, marriage has hardly proved a balm to Nykänen’s flailing private life (in all he has had four wives, and two children). In October 2004, he was found guilty of aggravated assault for a bizarre knife attack on a family friend: Nykänen stabbed his victim for besting him in a traditional Scandinavian finger-pulling contest – a game of linking middle fingers across a small card table and attempting, on the referee’s whistle, to yank your opponent out of his seat and over to your side. Then, four days after his release from prison, he was arrested again for attacking Tapola, and sentenced to another four months.

Alas, like so many famous athletes before him, Nykänen keep burning through his chances: He is now headed back to prison for 16 months, for yet another vicious attack on his wife.

When someone of Nykänen’s great physical accomplishment botches their post-career life so terribly, I find it tough to understand. Here is a man who was able to handle some of the most intense pressure in the world, and succeed marvelously. Yet ordinary tasks such as money management and human relationships seem beyond him.

There are a variety of potential explanations, ranging from the emotional immaturity of those who spend their formative years practicing a sport for 12 hours a day, to depression that stems from the removal of one’s longtime reason for being (i.e. to win competitions). Whatever the case might be with Matti Nukes, I do sincerely hope that he gets his act together during his forthcoming stint behind bars. Perhaps he needs tougher love than the Finnish penal system tends to offer.

Update Apparently there is a 2006 film about Matti Nukes, the title of which apparently translates as Matti: Hell is for Heroes. If any Finnish-speaking readers have seen this, please advise. (Related: Do I have any Finnish-speaking readers? If I do, that will totally make this blog enterprise worth all the effort.)


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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Jackal

    I wonder if the prevalence of anorexia among ski jumpers (since having a lower weight is very helpful) correlates with, or selects for, people with more addictive or depression-prone personalities..

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jackal: Interesting theory. I doubt there’s been any research to that effect on ski jumpers, esp. in the U.S. (given that it’s such a tiny sport here). But maybe there’s been work done among jockeys, who face similar issues due to the importance of weight control to their sport.

  • ADW

    I think about this a lot with regard to artists in general. The characteristics that make you a great artist/athlete aren’t always compatible to sustaining an emotionally healthy existence in the real world. Sort of along the same lines as, the coping skills needed to survive trauma often hinder an emotionally healthy existence once the trauma passes.

    And, when we look at athletes, to be a good athlete requires a mind-set adopted so young that the person can become hard-wired in a way that is difficult to unravel later. Some of these people don’t even know who they are outside their glorified identities. Never mind, knowing how to live outside of the rigid, disciplined routine that ruled their young lives. It’s like a child raised on a strict diet tasting sugar for the first time. Some of them go buck wild.

  • Gramsci

    Not surprisingly, David Foster Wallace covered this territory with respect to tennis.


    @ADW As for hard-wiring, Agassi’s autobiography “Open” affords ample evidence. The whole premise of the book is that he hates tennis, always hated tennis, but could not conceive of doing anything else in life (due to his maniacal father’s training).

    See also Todd Marinovich, whose QB-obsessed father literally did not let him eat refined sugar as a child. And he did go buck wild.

  • Jackal

    That DFW piece is fantastic (as you’d expect).

    Regarding ski jumper anorexia, just wanted to mention that it came up in an article in the run-up to the winter olympics:

    I grew up in Calgary and saw these guys jumping live — incredible stuff (my admiration for them was immediate); you also definitely notice how skinny/lean they are.

  • ADW


    I had to stop my prep for Friday night, because a DFW essay will do that.

    Two close friends who played USTA junior circuit tennis:

    Friend one played, which led to full scholarships to college for her and her brother. Her parents were, for the most part, sane. Her friends, some of whom I came to know well came from more rigid, disciplined households – intense daily workouts with morning weigh-ins, restricted diets, six-hour drives home from regional competitions endured in total silence after a defeat. My friend often reminded me, “Tennis father’s are insane.” But, I already knew this.

    Friend two. Her father was a visiting prof on the West Coast when we met. Hard driving, demanding, controlling, and a touch psychotic. She was beautiful, my first best friend, and truly mine. My mother had me running mountain trails at age eight. I fit right in on the tennis court. By the time we reconnected years later in her hometown on the East Coast, her father, a major figure in inner city tennis, was well on his way to having a major tennis erected in his name. She was a heroin addict.

    My story is a little different. Although, I wanted to be Nadia Comenici, I began too late. I was bad ass on the bars and floor, but couldn’t conquer my fear of the bar and vault. No matter, that wasn’t my mother’s obsession – I did commercials as a child. This was not by choice, but I had the look and frame and was pushed in front of the camera. I remember a shoot for a national KFC campaign where my mother had to threaten and coerce me out of the trailor to step in front of the camera. My young “career” would also factor into an incident that marked me with significant trauma.

    I look at these parents sometimes, and think – What the fuck could you possibly be thinking, pushing your child, demanding things from them that could possibly alter their young psyches and scar them for life? The seduction of glory is intense. Some of these kids fight for the rest of their lives to overcome the intensity of their early experiences.

    Thanks again,

  • ADW

    Oh God, that was terribly written — beam and vault were my fears.

  • Gramsci

    @ADW Wow, thank you for that. I guess it was no accident this topic drew our interest– I was a junior tennis player too. And I had a friend who was a young gymnast in Houston– I’d say gymnastics is much tougher, for many reasons, than tennis.

    The other parents were 100% of the reason I quit. My coach was basically grooming kids to get scholarships and in some cases go pro. He was nice, but the parents were insane. One girl I befriended was really talented, and went pro at 16. By 18 she was done. It came out her mother had been giving her HGH. When I saw her at a local community college at 20, she weighed about 260.

    I think you can often spot the personality type when it comes to the parents. The kids are their second shot at life, and they convince themselves it’s about giving the kid a better one than they had. My dad was a really good golfer, so he never needed me for glory. So I quit, no questions asked, and I moved on to other ambitions.

  • ADW


    Thanks again. This exchange was enlightening. Hopefully, BK will offer more opportunities for exchange in the future.

    HGH to a child…wow, every time I think I’ve heard the Big Kahuna of crazy sports parent stories, along comes another one. That’s sad.

  • Boursin

    I Googled Matti on a whim to see what foreigners think of him (on the Web at any rate). You don’t seem to have any Finnish-speaking readers, so here is your answer five years late.

    “Matti: Hell Is for Heroes” was the title merely for whatever overseas distribution the movie had. The Finnish title “Matti: Elämä on ihmisen parasta aikaa” would translate as “Matti: Your Life Is the Best Time of Your Life” (or perhaps “Matti: The Best Time in a Man’s Life Is When He’s Alive”). This was one of several inadvertently profound bons mots for which Matti is fondly remembered – others including “Every chance is an opportunity”, “Lahti is one place of a place”, “Truth really is reality” and “Tomorrow is always the future”.

    Matti is now already in his fifties; he has mellowed down a bit, and hasn’t been in trouble with the law since he got out on parole in 2012. But his basic immature personality still hasn’t changed, and nobody really expects it to. A classic case of “too much too young”.