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Profile: Matti Nykänen, national treasure on a slippery slope

Matti Nykänen died on Sunday after a colourful career including plenty of controversies. We're re-posting this 2015 profile to illustrate his impact on Finland and Finns worldwide.

Matti Nykänen receives a lifetime achievement award at the 2015 Sports Gala Image: Tomi Hänninen

In a country obsessed with winter sports, winning four Olympic ski-jumping golds is a tough achievement to overshadow. But over the last 25 years sporting legend Matti Nykänen has managed to do just that, becoming instead a tabloid fixture for his turns as a pop singer, stripper, wannabe politician - and throughout it all, a violent drunk. This year he’s due to appear for the first time at Finland’s Independence Day ball, where he’s says he’s determined to steer clear of alcohol - and scandal.

At the start of November, Finland’s President Niinistö announced that the special guests at this year’s Independence Day ball will be figures who’ve made a contribution to the nation’s cultural life. And that includes one of the country’s all-time sporting greats, ski-jumper Matti Nykänen. “Ski-jumping unites us as Finns, and has brought us decades of thrills, joy, and unforgettable moments,” the President said.

His words could equally - if not more so - describe the impact of Matti Nykänen’s private life on Finns young and old. Had Nykänen faded quietly into retirement after his Olympic medal triumphs of the '80s, he would have been remembered, and loved, as one of Finland's most successful sportsmen ever. But instead, for the past quarter of a century, Nykänen's wild, soap-opera-esque life has kept the nation transfixed, watching aghast but unable to turn away, as one madcap episode after another plays out on the front pages of tabloids and celebrity magazines.

From his transformation into pop sensation, to a stint as a male stripper in a nightclub, to working on an erotic phone line, to dozing off at the wheel and veering his car off a bridge, to his week-long engagement to a 17-year-old Estonian girl, Nykänen has careered down slippery slope after slippery slope, fuelled often by alcohol as he lurches from the comically absurd to the tragic and back again, only to launch himself into a (usually short-lived) comeback.

Tabloid fodder

For tabloid editors he is the gift that keeps on giving, to the extent that papers have had their own dedicated Nykänen reporters, tasked with following every unforeseen twist or relapse in the saga.

"At first it's funny, because here's this beloved sports figure doing wacky stuff," says Janne Oivio, a sports journalist at the tabloid Ilta-Sanomat. "But clearly he has zero life control, and many women, and problems with drink. For me the comedy died when he started punching people."

It is, indeed, impossible to talk about Nykänen for long before alighting on the subject of his violent rages, and his string of assault convictions. Christmas Day 2009 was - according to newspaper reports - spent in a cell, after he pulled a knife on his repeatedly estranged wife - and millionaire sausage company heiress - Mervi Tapola, before trying to strangle her with the cord of a dressing gown. That attack eventually saw him sentenced to 16 months behind bars; an earlier incident, in which Nykänen stabbed a friend who beat him in a finger-pulling contest, had already earned him a prison sentence of over two years.

The stories of domestic abuse and drunken assaults have done little to dent Nykänen's status as national treasure, however. Instead they've often elicited public sympathy as much as disgust or disapproval.

"Newspapers do write about the violence, it's not like it's silenced," says Ilta-Sanomat's Janne Oivio. "But people want to forget it exists, like we do with sports heroes. This is a person you used to idolise as a child, so you hope, 'I wish they'd get better.' There's also a more negative side, that people and the media write off the violence and say, ‘Boys will be boys, they do stupid stuff when they’re drunk.’ They look for a way to justify these things.”

“To jump, and to jump again”

Nykänen, now 52, is reported to have first taken to the ski slopes aged 8, in response to a dare by his father. Undaunted as a child by the teetering heights of the ski ramps, jumping quickly became an obsession. “The only thing I wanted was to jump,” he’s quoted as saying in his biography by Egon Theiner, “and to jump, and to jump again.”

And jump he did. Throughout his teens Nykänen cleaned up time after time at junior competitions, while the floodlights and chairlift at his local slope in Jyväskylä meant he was able to spend almost every single moment of his free time perfecting his technique - far longer than most of his rivals could.

On turning 18, Nykänen began competing internationally in adult competitions, going from strength to strength until he had amassed 46 world cup wins - a record which still stands today - and four Olympic golds. At the Calgary 1988 winter games, at which Nykänen claimed three golds and a silver, he became the first skier ever to take first place in both the large- and normal-hill categories.

It’s a common misconception that ski-jumping is all about making the longest jump possible; in fact the judging system traditionally awards points for style and technique over distance. And while Nykänen did set some distance records - in 1985 he became the first skier to break the 190-metre mark - with a jump which remains to this day his personal best, of 191 metres - his dominance has been said to be down to perfect takeoffs every time, subtle details in his technique, and his unusual broad yet thin build, all of which allowed him to capture the wind and ride on the air for long distances.

“That feeling of bon voyage”

But already during his glory years of the 80s, alcohol’s grasp on the sport’s golden boy had earned him a reputation for fights and tantrums off the slopes, not to mention for giving rambling, drunken interviews.

Like catchphrases from a favourite comedy sketch show, the pearls of wisdom Nykänen dispensed during his public appearances became known and repeated up and down the country. Websites devoted to his philosophical offerings abound. “Every chance is an opportunity!” “Life is a person’s best time!” “Tomorrow is always the future!” “What hasn’t been done cannot be undone!”

Some of his most memorable utterances came from Nykänen’s determination not to be held back by his renowned inability to speak other languages. “Whenever I get to the end of the ramp I get that feeling of bon voyage, like I’ve been in this situation before,” he once said. Assessing his chances another time - “It’s really fifty-sixty how it turns out.”

Matti Nykänen's 42 ski-jumping medals were the centrepiece at an exhibition of medals in Jyväskylä, central Finland this year. Image: Jani Ilola / Yle

But by 1991, just three years after storming the medals table at the Calgary Olympics, Nykänen would find himself limping in at 50th place at the world championships. His stellar sporting career was effectively over.

What followed were years of Nykänen struggling to make sense of a life without his all-consuming ski-jumping. Intermittent successes, such as his gold-selling 1992 album of Finnish power-pop, were interspersed with financial problems, divorces (Nykänen has now had four wives, and has two children) and spirals into the depths of alcoholism.

After two and a half decades largely out of the sporting arena, it's not surprising that Nykänen is now a Finnish household name for different reasons. “The older generation remember him for his sporting achievements,” says Ilta-Sanomat journalist Janne Oivio. “But for younger people, he’s more the camp character and singer guy who did something in sports before they were born.”

That’s not to say, though, that the public isn’t rooting for him. More than that, Nykänen’s shortcomings are an integral part of his undying popularity.

“I was at a concert of his in Tapiola in 2001 or 2002,” Oivio remembers. “He was well into his set, pumping up the crowd. It was a packed house of four or five hundred people. The next song began, but he forgot to start singing. The fact it was a shambles meant people loved it even more - that’s part of the whole package.”

On stage in Kuopio in 2014. Nykänen continues to tour the country's clubs as an entertainer. Image: YLE / Toni Pitkänen

Nykänen is still gigging, and with no recent violent incidents appearing in the press there’s tentative hope that the national treasure has achieved some sort of inner peace. He's been invited to the presidential palace for Finland's Independence Day ball in the past, but sporting commitments kept him away. Now, close to three decades after the peak of his ski-jumping career, Nykänen will finally be taking his place among the crème de la crème of Finnish society.

In a recent interview, he said he and his current wife, Pia, are excited about shaking hands with the presidential couple. The fact that he’s decided to follow protocol and dress in a tuxedo for the night, which will be watched on TV by millions of Finns this Sunday, was enough to make further headlines this month.

“I want to respect the sanctity of the independence ball, but I’m also really tired of the constant rumba. So it’s best to leave out the alcohol,” he told a journalist. “I can promise that I won’t be touching a drop. Not even the punch. I’ll be driving there.”

“The whole country’s probably waiting for me to get off my face and mess up badly,” Nykänen reflects. He may well be right. But he must also know by now that however catastrophic things get, the forgiveness of the public is never far off.