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.)