Ask NBC ski jumping analyst Jeff Hastings, a 1984 Olympian who’s provided commentary at every Winter Olympics since 1988, why the sport makes great TV, and he has his answer ready: “Falls!” he jokes. Actually, there’s more to it than that. “These guys are jumping out of a 20-story building and flying as far down the hill as possible — 200 feet is how far they’re dropping over the course of their flight,” he says. “It’s an amazing piece of physics and an amazing bit of courage to do it well.” With women’s ski jumping finally making its Olympic debut in Sochi — we’ll have more on that closer to the start of their competition on Feb. 11 — more eyes will be on the sport than ever. Before he left Sochi, we asked Hastings what we should be watching for when ski jumping gets underway Saturday, Feb. 8 (first up: men’s normal hill individual qualification, which will livestream on NBCOlympics.com at 11:30 a.m. ET and be part of NBC’s afternoon telecast starting at 2:30 p.m. ET).
The backstory you want to know: Japan’s Noriaki Kasai, 41, is competing in his SEVENTH Olympics. “He is unbelievable. It’s such a tough sport to stay competitive at because most people as they get older get wiser and realize that it’s not a sport you should be doing very long,” Hastings says. “So the move that you make at the takeoff, which is what decides how good you are really, is really simple. Anybody can do it on the ground perfectly. The challenge comes in doing it at 55, 60 miles an hour and knowing that if you do it perfectly it could be disaster: It is taking it right to the edge and a little bit over with the confidence being there knowing that you’re going to pull through the other side. So for somebody 41 years old, who’s been doing it for, I don’t know, since the Nixon administration or whenever, to be getting basically better… He’s a guy who’s sort of finished fifth to twentieth forever, but this year’s been finishing first to tenth. It’s amazing to me. And I can tell you, too, that the field is not getting less competitive. It’s not like the field is coming back to him. He’s doing something different, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s really impressive.”
What’s the difference between the normal hill and the large hill? The men will do both. “It’s really just two of the same events on different hills,” Hastings says. “The smaller hill, on paper, favors somebody who’s stronger and more technically correct from the takeoff, whereas with the larger hill, the strength matters less and it’s about being a bigger surface area relative to weight to get that flying effect.”
Another story to know: Austrian’s three-time Olympian Thomas Morgenstern is competing following a serious Jan. 10 crash that left him with head and lung injuries. “He’s coming back. What I would’ve said 20 years ago when guys only skied through one Olympics and then retired, a fall like that might affect your head, and your head, like I said earlier, is what this is all about,” Hastings says. “These guys are professionals. They fall, and they get better all the time, and they’re in it for the long haul, and it’s a career, and it’s a business. I don’t know if you’ve been to Morgenstern’s website, but it looks as nice as Red Bull’s or Nike’s. These guys are businesses onto themselves. This matters to them, what happens at these Olympics.”
Why NBC could be scrambling: “Usually in any given season, there’s one or two guys who are kickin’ everybody’s butts. You might sneak somebody odd in for a bronze medal, but basically you have a pretty good idea of who’s gonna be first and second,” Hastings says. “But this year [there have been so many different winners], it’s anybody’s ballgame, and that is so cool going on. It’s going to be in hell on NBC because they like to focus on one or two people and make big stories and then have it play it,” he continues, laughing. “It’s a minefield: Anybody could blow up and anybody could come home a winner — 14 or 15 different guys — which I think makes it really exciting.” What works in NBC’s favor: “Every hill has its own personality. So as much as there are 15 people arriving at Sochi that may have a chance, after two or three days of training, some four, three, two people are gonna fit with that hill — the contours of it, the way it flies, the altitude, the thickness of the air, the way the air moves. Every year, somebody comes in and just fits on a hill. It’ll be interesting to see who that is.”
Click here for full ski jumping schedule. All events will livestream on NBCOlympics.com. Check TV listings for NBC’s coverage.