The Four Hills Tournament is a special event where the winner can often go down in sporting history. Even if they never manage to repeat the feat.
We don’t need to go so far back in ski jumping history to understand that success in the Four Hills Tournament can bring about sporting immortality. It’s enough to look at the list of names of the people who’ve stood on the podium at this great event over the last few years to see that – they include such greats as Kamil Stoch, Peter Prevc, Stefan Kraft, Severin Freund, Thomas Morgenstern, Simon Ammann and Thomas Diethart… hang on a moment, who’s that last one? It certainly isn’t a name known to those who don’t follow the world of ski jumping closely.
The biggest puzzle in ski jumping history
He’s a 22-year-old Austrian who in just ten days went from being a complete unknown and an average jumper to a global sports star. After deciding to become a ski jumper, Diethart trained hard in the lowlands around his home town, mostly achieving mediocre results. By winter 2013/14, he still hadn’t achieved the success he’d hoped for. Obviously, he wouldn’t even dream of standing on the podium of the Continental Cup – the second tier of ski jumping competitions. But despite everything, the coaches continued to give him chances. At the end of 2013, ‘Didl’ went to Rena in Norway for the Continental Cup, and his two 6th place finishes there led to head coach Alexander Pointner taking him to the competition in Engelberg. There he achieved the best (or so it seemed) results of his career (a 4th and 6th place) and he was given a ‘last minute’ call-up to the 2014 Four Hills Tournament.
What happened next, as we all know, was that the victories in Innsbruck and Bischofshofen which made his name were unfortunately his first and last at that elite level. That same winter, Diethart won an Olympic team silver medal in Sochi, but then he simply disappeared. He floated around ski jumping’s second and third tiers, gave interviews in which he suggested a psychological breakdown, and suffered painful falls both during training and in competition. Less than a year after one particularly big crash, he announced that he would never jump again.
“I resigned myself to being at the bottom of this hole and never getting out – instead of shouting out: ‘Hey, all of this can be fixed’. Nothing was working for me and I was getting injuries. I trained hard, felt well-prepared and ready to come back. Until I went to another competition, and then what happened? Nothing came off for me. It was a vicious circle,” laments this forgotten hero, who remains probably the biggest puzzle in the 66-year history of the famous German-Austrian competition. And yet he will still go down in the annals of ski jumping history because he achieved something which most can only dream about.
Unexpected finishes on the podium
Since the time when Adam Małysz was setting the Four Hills Tournament alight at the turn of the century, the tournament has generally been won by recognised and experienced jumpers. But with three places on the podium, it was often enough to be just a decent jumper to claim one of them. That’s how we remember the names of Peter Žonta and Michael Neumayer. For the former, the only thing he could boast about, besides his success in the Four Hills Tournament, was the Olympic team bronze medal that he won in Salt Lake City. He’d seen success as a junior, but he’d never managed to achieve any kind of spectacular individual success. And then, at the start of 2004, the magic of the tournament got to work. After the German sections of the competition, it seemed that the great Sigurd Pettersen would walk away with the title but Žonta unexpectedly outjumped the brilliant Norwegian to claim the first victory of his career. He stood on the podium for the first time at Bergisel and spurred on by this success took second place in Bischofshofen. This, combined with good results in Oberstdorf and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, gave him third place in the Four Hills general classification. Slovenians believed they had unearthed a new star, but they soon discovered that a star that burns brightly can fade just as quickly. Žonta never again featured prominently in any ski jumping tournament and he finished his career very much on the sidelines.
Neumayer, who stood on the podium of the Four Hills at the start of 2008, also didn’t have many World Cup victories to his name, but at least he was a regular fixture in the German team for a number of years. Astonishingly, his success in the Four Hills Tournament came with just one podium finish (his third-place finish in Garmisch-Partenkirchen being the first time he’d made the top three in his career). In the other competitions, he came seventh twice and in the tournament finale, just tenth. Neumayer finished his career as ‘an unlucky guy who never won anything’, but he still has the right to feel fulfilled. Besides his third place in that memorable tournament, which remains his only significant individual success, he also won an Olympic team silver medal, three World Championship medals and one for ski flying. Not a bad balance for someone who was once labelled the ski jumper with the ugliest style in the world.
An acrobat on skis
Besides Diethart, there is one other youngster from Austria who also deserves a special mention on the list of tournament surprises from the 21st century – a certain 13-year-old who made a famous double jump in Bischofshofen. His name is Thomas Thurnbichler.
The fans standing by the side of the slope couldn’t believe their eyes when, after a very short flight, instead of skiing on down, he jumped up again on the edge of the landing zone and managed to fly down as far as the construction point. He was greeted with thunderous applause and the journalists all flocked to interview him. He was regarded as a huge talent, but unfortunately, apart from a few successes as a junior, he was unable to achieve anything of note. His feat in 2003 turned out to be the most important jump of his life and when he finally completed his last jump, just eight years later, the moment passed almost unnoticed.