Eagles without wings

January 14, 2013

Oberstdorf, Germany to Bischofshofen, Austria

By Kai Pfaffenbach

For a German sports photographer covering first division Bundesliga soccer, every week between December and the end of January is actually quite boring. While other major leagues (not only in soccer) continue their season, Bundesliga is “off” for four weeks. Although I would normally tend to miss “my“ weekly fix of soccer, I always look forward to the so-called “winter break”. It gives me time to cover one of the sports events I really love to photograph: the four hills ski jumping tournament.

As a young boy watching it on TV, I could never imagine standing on top of such a ski jump. But it was my 14th time this year traveling from Oberstdorf, Germany’s most southern city, where the opening jumping is traditionally held, to Garmisch-Partenkirchen for the “new-year-jumping” on January 1. After those two jumpings in Germany, the tournament convoy rides to Innsbruck in Austria and then the final “epiphany jumping” in Bischofshofen. Four different cities in nine days. Up to 30,000 spectators cheering their heroes when they soar down.

But it seems ski jumping is not very popular overseas. Besides the strong Japanese team, all the top athletes come from central Europe. The top leading nations this winter are Austria, Norway and Germany. No wonder this year’s tournament was a duel between Austria’s ski jumping super star Gregor Schlierenzauer and Norway’s Anders Jacobsen. As wind, snow and rain are new challenges to the athletes during each jumping, it is a great challenge for a photographer to find new angles and develop ideas for “new” pictures.

The officials of the International Ski Federation FIS are incredibly helpful and give me opportunities which I never get anywhere else. They let me mount a camera on a pole behind the jumper to capture the moment before they descend the starting beam. And they allow me to set up a camera directly at the end of the slide track at the so called “jumping table.” It gives you a unique view from “ski-level” and offers the panoramic view the jumper has.

The one and only problem is the speed of the jumpers. They reach almost 100kmh just before they take off and although our cameras have 1/8000 sec as the fastest shutter speed and can take up to 14 images per second you will only have one proper picture of the athlete “taking off.” Using a photoelectric barrier solved the “timing” problem.

Shooting very fast shutter speeds “freeze” such moments, so I decided to go with a very slow shutter speed to show how fast the guys are sliding down the ski jump and soaring through the air. In some situations such photographic tricks make the picture, and in others, the background or special light situations make the difference. For years the main picture from the Innsbruck event showed the jumpers flying over the St. Wilten basilica and its graveyard. Yes, ski jumping is dangerous, but not that crazy.

Unfortunately, there were a few crash landings during this years event again. Germany’s 17-year-old youngster Andreas Wellinger was just about to celebrate a great attempt in Bischofshofen when he fell down and kissed the snow. Luckily he wasn’t injured at all and could start in the second run.

By this time Schlierenzauer and Jacobsen were jumping in their own league. Carefully watched by the judges, who are responsible for good or bad marks, they were pushing each other to longer and wider jumps. In the end Jacobsen won the first two jumpings in Germany, while Schlierenzauer won twice on his Austrian home turf. As the ranking is a result of jumping length and judgement points added up from all four jumpings, it was Schlierenzauer who celebrated his great triumph and won the tournament for the second time in a row.

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