Helmut Recknagel never said what it was that made him go back home to Thuringia from a cold, bright day in Bavaria in January, 1956. He’d been jumping off mountains for half his life. He’d grown up in the looming shadow of Germany’s first ever ski-jumping slope.
And this was his first big chance to show the world what he could do.
Maybe it was the cold, but that would seem unlikely. He’d jump two years later in minus 20 degrees in a pair of trousers so tight that he froze. It was the world championships. He’d stuck it out, coming third, but he’d hoped for better. Everyone had.
Or maybe it was the glare of the TV cameras. 1956 was the first year that the Vierschanzen tournament would be shown on ARD, West German television. It’d even be broadcast even into British cinemas as a Pathe news segment.
A clipped plummy tone wonderously described the scene set to playful, suitably wintry, pizzicato library music. January was the football season and if it snowed, then you played through that as well. The implication was clear. Only continentals would do this sort of thing.
But the idea that he’d be put off by the attention seems unlikely, too.
For he’d lived his life in the glare of the spotlight. He was used to pressure. Even his earliest jumps had been watched by knowledgeable locals. He would become the DDR’s first Sportsman of the year.
Shit, even his Stasi file swelled and bulged like a puffer fish backed into a corner. Manfred Ewald, the powerful and often vindictive minister for sport was said to despise him.
So, maybe it was just the task ahead of him. The Garmisch-Partenkirchen jump reared over 100 metres up from the mountain underpinning it. It was made of concrete in a huge arc, but it was somehow spindly. It still wobbled in the wind.
And Recknagel was expected to fly down it, his back bowed impossibly, his head like that on the bow of a ship, arms dynamically pointing straight forwards, mirroring his skis below. He had to hold his nerve as he flew through the air, the elements buffeting him side to side. No padding, no helmet. Just two shitty wooden skis underneath him his only protection.
A crowd of thousands in his peripheral vision would be looking from up below like they had been painted on by Roy Lichtenstein, multicoloured spots daubing a blinding white canvas. They rung cow bells, they stamped their feet to keep warm, they cheered.
And they chatted to each other breezily about the technicalities of this terrifying act that most of them would never dare to do even just once in their lives.
He carried no poles. No-one did back then. He’d land with his arms out sideways for balance, his left knee flexing on impact, he would continue on as it bent so low it almost touched his ski, absorbing the impact. His right shoulder would drop to counteract the gravity pulling him the other way.
He’d grit his teeth and trust in his technique and his skis, his forward momentum and the snow beneath his feet.
Just four years later Helmut Recknagel would become the first non-Scandinavian to win an Olympic gold medal in ski-jumping. He would carry the flag for the combined German team at the Olympics in Squaw Valley, California.
A decade after Germany had been cleved in two, this likable, easy bloke from rural, hilly Thuringia – where the snow was regular enough to produce some of the country’s greatest ever jumpers, but unpredictable enough to necessitate building the worlds first plastic ski-jump hill – would be the face of sporting unity.
He somehow held everyone together.
His hair was curlier at the front where it grew long but was downy at the back, resisting his best efforts to force it into a side parting. There was something eagle-ish about Recknagel’s face. Looking at photographs of him it’s easy to think that this pointy nosed man with a keen smile and dark, deeply sunken eyes really was born to fly.
Once his countryman Hans Georg Aschenbach landed a national record with his skis having fallen off half way through. He is a divisive character though, still to this day. Not that anyone would question that he had balls of steel.
But what makes Helmut Recknagel so magical is his mortality.
For in 1956, as a 19 year old, with a chance of qualifying for the Olympic games at stake he took one look at that jump, at the people crowded excitedly all around, at the cameras and the competitors, and heard all the excited babble, and he thought to himself,
Fuck this. I’m going home.
Hemmo Silvenoinen of Finland won that day. It takes a brave man to throw himself off the edge of a mountain.
But it takes a braver one to decide that sometimes, just sometimes, today is just not the day.