An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.

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Ski jumping is one of the great spectacles in all of winter sport—and always a hot ticket at the Olympics, for obvious reasons.

Field of Play

Modern ski jumpers compete on jumps of two different sizes: the “normal” hill and the “large” hill. Just what defines “normal” and “large” in terms of distance has steadily evolved over the years. But trust me, when you stand on top of one, there’s nothing at all normal about a “normal” hill. To the neophyte, they’re all big, tall, and frightening, although the sport, in truth, is not really as dangerous as it looks. Although skiers are flying more than 140 meters (450-plus feet) on the large hills, once they get past that gut-clenching drop from the lip of the jump, they are usually no more than about 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground, thanks to the contours of the landing hill below them. It’s a bit of an optical illusion—and a grand one at that.

The hill’s upper portions are actually large jumping ramps, called the in-run. These structures are built of concrete or wood and covered with snow. Their height depends on the terrain; jumps built into hillsides have shorter towers. At the end of the ramp is the takeoff table, a zone that has a defined grade of 11 percent. Below is a landing hill, contoured to mimic the line of a ski jumper’s flight as he or she descends down the mountain, allowing for a smooth landing with, it is hoped, little impact.

Each hill has a landing target known as the calculation point, or critical point, or K point, which is the average distance, or par, in golf terms, for the jumper to shoot for. This point, about two-thirds of the way down the landing hill, is identified on the landing strip by the K line. In the K90 (normal) competition, the line is 70 to 90 meters (230–295 feet) from the start. Skiers can fly for distances up to and beyond 110 meters (360 feet) on these jumps. In the K120 (large) competitions, the line is 90 to 120 meters (295–394 feet) away from the start. Skiers can reach distances of 145 meters (475 feet) or more. (The numbers, contrary to common misperception, do not reflect the height of the jump ramp.)

In ski flying, another version of the sport not included in the Olympics, the K line is at 185 meters (607 feet). World record holder Björn Einar Romören sailed 239 meters (784 feet) on such a hill in 2005.

Below the K line is the braking area, where the downhill pitch lessens. The flat area at the bottom of the hill is called the outrun. It’s where the jumper comes to a complete stop.

Format, Rules, and Strategy

Ski Jumping

In the Olympics, each jumper gets a training jump and two scored jumps. Team competitions, conducted on the large hill, give four team members two jumps each. (Teams are winnowed to the top eight after the first jump.) The highest aggregate team score wins.

The scoring system combines distance with style points. Skiers get an automatic 60 points per jump if they land on the K line. Points (2 per meter on the normal hill, 1.8 per meter on the large hill) are deducted and/or added for landings that are short of, or beyond, this line. Note that a skier’s overall distance is still reliant on human eyesight; a group of judges line the course on both sides of the K point. The one nearest the space between the jumper’s feet upon landing raises a flag to mark the spot.

Style also comes into play. Five judges in a tower on the side of the landing zone rate each jump, awarding up to 20 points for style, as measured by steadiness of the skis during flight, balance, body position, and the landing.

The final score is a composite of the distance score plus the style score from three of the five judges (the highs and lows are thrown out). The jumper with the highest point score from his or her two jumps is the winner.

Just what constitutes proper ski-jumping “form” in the minds of judges is something that has evolved over the years. For a century after its invention, ski jumping involved a classic form known as the Kongsberger technique: forward leaning, arms forward, skis parallel. Fine-tuned in Norway by jumpers Sigmund Ruud and Jacob Tullin Thams after World War I, this style was the norm for many years. It was modified in the 1950s by Germans who experimented with placing the arms farther back, toward the hips, to emphasize the forward lean. The style is now considered something of a relic.

The new form, the V-style, was developed by Jan Boklöv of Sweden in 1985. It’s the form we’re familiar with today: body leaning dramatically forward, arms tight at the sides, back straight, with the nose almost in a line with the tips of skis that are splayed in a dramatic V shape. The new style allows jumpers to ride the air longer, adding about 10 percent to jumps.

Landings are done in the traditional telemark style, with one ski slightly ahead of the other, knees bent, arms held out to the sides.

Aerodynamics is key to the sport, so contestants are keenly aware of wind speed and direction, snow speed on the takeoff ramp, and other natural factors. Proper technique includes a tight tuck on the takeoff ramp; a carefully timed uncoiling of the legs and midsection at a precise point at the end of the takeoff ramp; smooth, clean body lines in the air while sailing down the mountain; and a precise, confident, well-balanced landing.

Even neophytes can spot a good jump when they see one: The skier seems to sail forever down the mountain (actually, it’s usually only 4 to 5 seconds), wringing the very last ounce of air out of a jump before letting gravity pull him back to earth. Performed correctly, the sport is visually stunning and is usually one of the more popular spectator events at most Olympics.

Nordic Combined

Nordic combined is actually two very different sports in one: ski jumping and cross-country skiing. Because the two pursuits involve completely different techniques, muscle groups, training, and physical skills, the sport is one of the most difficult to master. It is, quite simply, twice the work.

These days, the standard event, called the Individual Gundersen, starts with two jumps on the normal hill and finishes with a 15-kilometer cross-country race. In the sport’s early years, results from the cross-country race, started in intervals and timed, were converted to points, which were added to the jump points to get an overall score. The highest combined point total won. That changed in 1988, with the switch to the more fan-friendly Gundersen method. Jumping scores now determine the start intervals for a pursuit race, so whoever crosses the finish line first in the cross-country event is the overall event winner.

A team event was added for the 1988 Games, and a 7.5-kilometer sprint was added in 2002. Both events use the large (120-meter) hill.

In team competition, teams of four jumpers take two jumps each, with the eight jumps resulting in a score that determines the start for a relay race. The team whose final skier crosses the finish line first is the winner.

In the sprint, jumpers get one crack at the large hill to determine the cross-country race start intervals. Skiers then compete in a 7.5-kilometer race, with the first across the finish line winning the event.

Both ski jumping and Nordic combined are limited at this time, at least in the Olympics, to men. But women have begun jumping on the World Cup circuit and, in training, on the ski jumps at Whistler Olympic Park. A petition to add women’s ski jumping to the 2010 schedule was rejected in 2006 by the International Olympic Committee, on the grounds that the sport has too few competitors in too few nations. But women will jump in the November 2009 FIS Nordic World ski championships in the Czech Republic, and pressure to add women’s jumping as a medal sport is likely to persist.

Training and Equipment

Lower leg strength is paramount for springing off the jumps and for landing, so leg conditioning drills are common and run the gamut: running, weight lifting, and cardio machines. But one of the most reliable forms of training is also one of the oldest: walking back up that seemingly endless row of stairs after each jump. Thanks to wetted plastic coatings on ski jumps, skiers are now able to train safely all year around.

Jumping skis are extremely long—up to 270 centimeters—and one and a half to two times as wide as alpine skis. (The maximum length is 80 centimeters more than a skier’s height.) Skis have no metal edges, and most have grooves running along the bottom to keep them tracking straight on the in-run. Wax is applied in certain conditions.

Boots are ankle high and flexible, with ankle stiffeners. Boots need to be flexible enough to allow a proper amount of lean but bulky enough to withstand landings, when jumpers hit the ground with a force about three times their weight. Boots are attached to the ski only at the toe, telemark style. Ski jumpers don’t use poles.

Jumpers wear one-piece bodysuits like those worn in other sports, with two major exceptions—they’re lined with foam, and they’re not skintight. Extra fabric, in fact, can create lift in ski jumping, as can the degree of air that passes through one’s suit fabric. As a result, suits are carefully regulated for “permeability.” Jumpers also wear crash helmets and goggles, in the event of that “agony of defeat” spill.