NAGANO, Japan -- The 120-meter ski jump is the biggest kid's slide in the world. It is also one of the most beautiful sporting events invented by man. The jumper starts at the top of a long concrete incline that looms above the crowd like a huge industrial launching pad aimed at the sky. High above the crowd, he crouches and launches himself down the slope. He needs speed above all else, speed that will place a powerful hand behind and under his body at the moment he shoots heavenward off a ramp and carry him into his transformation, when he will become first a bird, and then a falling paper plane.
The snow flies under him, the ramp rushes up at him. Then with a great lifting pull he explodes upward into space. He has to gain altitude and carry it, and to do that he must know some gentle, secret language of the air, some intimate way of caressing the sky just so with his body. Not many do.
He is flying -- or is it falling? This is the only time when you fly and fall at the same time. Now his climb ends and he is going forward and down, skis spread apart, the ground sloping down far below him. He must perform a supremely unnatural act, leaning forward almost parallel to the ground, his face right over the tips of his skis. If those long launching-sticks were to fall off now, he would plunge like a stone to his death. But he is not a stone; he is a man flying through the air. He must become a glider. His form in the air must be absolutely still and clean, like a razor or a haiku.
Gravity seizes him, but he defies it. This is the time when championships are won. He holds his form, holds it, holds it, even as ground and defeat call to him. He leans out, willing himself to stay aloft a fraction of a second longer. And then, as gently as a falling leaf dropping into an alpine lake, he touches down. His flight has lasted about three seconds, and he has soared more than 250 feet in the air.
Tuesday morning, on the big hill in Hakuba, I saw one of those events that transcend sport to become something larger. The event was the 120-meter team ski-jumping championship, and the drama was centered on a ski jumper named Masahiko Harada. Harada has been under a curse for years. At these Games, he set the record on the big hill Sunday with a jump of 136 meters in the individual competition, but a weak earlier jump forced him to settle for a bronze. Harada's curse was far older and deeper than that, however. In Lillehammer, Japan was leading the team competition going into the last jump (four team members from each nation jump twice each; the winner is the country with the highest combined total, including distance and style marks). But Harada flopped, coming up with a terrible last jump -- and the Germans won the gold.
Harada's pain must have been of an order that is hard for an American to comprehend. For this was the teamcompetition -- and teamwork means something completely different to the Japanese than it does to Americans. Children are raised, employees are taught, to be part of a team. To let down the team is to violate something sacred.
Yet the Japanese didn't turn on Harada. In fact, he was one of the most beloved, if not the most beloved, athletes in the country.
The final element of the drama was national. Ever since the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, when Japan swept the medals on the 120-meter hill, ski jumping has been a point of national pride, verging on obsession.
The jump took place in a blizzard. The huge, passionate crowd -- it looked close to 50,000 -- was enveloped by a whirling, at times almost blinding, snow that forced several delays and led officials to cancel the start of the second round of jumpers. In the first round of jumps, Takanobu Okabe, Hiroya Saito and Kazuyoshi Funaki came up with strong jumps -- but Harada, jumping into blinding snow, posted a disastrous 79.5 meters that knocked Japan into fourth place behind Austria, Germany and Norway. It looked like the Olympics curse was fated to repeat itself.
In the second round, after the delay, Okabe sailed to a course-record 137 meters, giving the Japanese, with 540.7 points, a narrow lead over Germany, 534.0, Norway, 532.9, and Austria, 524.0. The pressure was on Japan. They had gold medalist Funaki jumping last, but a poor or even an average jump by the third jumper, Harada, might put them in a hole too big to dig out of.
Harada went onto the hill. The roar from the overwhelmingly Japanese crowd was deafening. "Ha-ra-da! Ha-ra-da!" I snuck a look at the man next to me: He looked like he was praying. A little old lady was shrieking and waving her arms. If you couldn't feel what the Olympics were all about at that moment, you were merely a zombie walking around in a human body. He was ready. A tiny speck on the long, curved ramp, he started down.
Almost the moment Harada sailed into the air, you could tell he'd hit it. He flattened out, almost kissing his skis, and simply became a horizontal line, holding his height, drifting rapidly and effortlessly down the mountainside. Far, far down he floated, until he touched down beyond the last mark. It took them a while to measure the jump. When the words "137 meters" appeared on the scoreboard, pandemonium broke out. Harada shook his fists in triumph. He had equaled Okabe's mark -- the longest Olympic ski jump ever recorded.
But the Austrians and Germans weren't done. Their star jumpers put up strong figures to retake the lead. The last jumper of the day, Funaki, an angel-faced 22-year-old, got ready. He had to hit a solid jump to sew up the gold for Japan.
Funaki imperturbably sailed a strong 125 meters. He knelt down in the snow and watched the scoreboard. A moment passed. Then the final standings appeared.
Funaki fell backwards onto the snow. His teammates mobbed him, shouting. Harada was rolling in the snow like a baby. "I did it! I did it!" he shouted. He looked bewildered. And then, his face began to twitch and he started to cry, his strangely timid, almost old ladylike face crumpling. He cried and cried, as he stood embracing his teammates, as he stood on the podium to receive the flowers, an incredulous, grateful, shy grin revealing his large, bad teeth. And everyone in the stadium roared and smiled with him, and some wept, too. Teenage girls pressed against the fence and screamed and gibbered like Beatles fans.
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Members of the U.S. women's hockey team show off their gold medals after their upset win over Canada in the final game.
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In the Saku train station, the jump and the celebration were playing on a TV in a waiting area. Six or seven people were watching.
"I was there!" I announced excitedly to the group. They smiled. "Harada -- Japan's best!" a man said. "He seems like a good guy," I said. "He's a good papa!" the man replied.
At midnight in a packed 30s, Nagano's big Olympics bar, three Japanese students were celebrating. They were working on a mini-keg of beer. When they heard I'd been at the ski jump, they clapped me on the back. "Can you drink?" they shouted, and poured me a beer. "Harada is the most loved of Japan!" one of them shouted. "You see, he go like this" -- and he made a gesture of tears running down his face. "Harada! Harada!" we shouted. "I not proud of Japan before, but today I proud!" hollered one of the kids.
Another kid, much drunker, with a face like a leering temple guardian, grabbed me and dragged me over to his group. "You drink!" he screamed and tried to pour a big glass of what tasted like whisky into my mouth. I pulled my head back. When he heard I had seen the jump, he went even more berserk. "You there?" he howled. He grabbed me again and, before I knew what he was doing, he pulled open my shirt and bit me on the chest, as if I was a piece of the True Cross. Whoa, dude! Lighten up on the Jim Beam and general insanity!
It was a night for celebrations. It being my last night in Japan, I decided to miss the last train and check out Nagano's night life -- I'd been running my entire life by that damn 10:51 train so religiously and for so long and with such hideous fear of the park-bench consequences of missing it that when I found myself actually in a bar with a drink in my hand at 10:52, I burst out laughing. I had somehow expected to turn into a pumpkin, or fall into a coma, or something.
It turned out it was worth pulling an all-nighter, because at about 1:30 a.m. a bunch of women in white Team USA jackets squeezed into the teeming bar, preceded by a guy with a bullhorn yelling, "Here's the USA gold medal women's hockey team!" The U.S. had just beat Canada for the first-ever gold medal in women's hockey, and the girls were out on the town. I patted them on the back and congratulated them and said what they had done would be great for women's sports. They were jockettes of various degrees of likability. One of them ordered a big tray of shots of tequila, which they all downed. A bunch of guys had their pictures taken with them.
Some of the Finnish women's team were there. Several of the Canadian team members were there, too, hugging and talking to the Americans. I congratulated one of the Canadians. She shrugged. "It's disappointing." "Well, at least it looks like you get along better with the American women than the Canadian and American men do," I said. "Not really," she said. "We usually beat them, and then they don't want to have anything to do with us. Today they beat us, and now they're friendly." She said it without rancor. The happy crowd of celebrating Japanese and Americans cheered. It was a jumping night.
At 5, I started to fade. Getting off the bullet train at Sakudaira Station on this bitterly cold, clear morning, the mountains were dusted with snow so soft and powdery that it looked like a cloud had fallen asleep on the earth.
My Games are over. It's been a great ride, even if it was a bit frenetic. Images whirl up at me out of the past two weeks: The Japanese children, so well loved, laughing gleefully at who knows what. The ashen faces of the Czech fans when hated Russia scored to go ahead. The policemen in their toy uniforms running across the street to help me. The distant, joyful look on the face of Norwegian speed skater Aadne Sondral as he stood on the podium after winning the 1,500-meter race. The ugly-faced scalpers. The distant, elegant kinetic sculpture of the women's downhill, the evil unbelievable ice-tube blur of the luge. The woman who sells drinks and food from a cart on the first-class Shinkansen train turning to ceremonially bow to the passengers each time she leaves a car. The white-gloved taxi drivers. The Swedes and Canadians teasing each other and wrapping each other in their huge flags, the Japanese fans roaring for their heroes. The family of man eating, drinking, playing together. And a man flying through the air, frozen forever, like a figure on an ancient urn.
I wouldn't have missed this for the world.