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Women's skijump - Sochi Winter Olympics awaits women's duel in the sky

Tuesday, 11 February 2014 - 8:59am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
A tiny Japanese teenager and a gay Austrian will be the Games' stars on Tuesday writes Ian Chadband from Sochi

Just as Russia is going crazy for its latest teenage sporting sensation here, a tiny Japanese schoolgirl called Sara Takanashi can send her own nation wild with joy tonight when she plunges off the most expensive ski jump the world has ever seen and attempts to "fly like a bird" into Olympic folklore.

The hosts were still swooning yesterday about the performance of their 15-year-old figure skating prodigy Julia Lipnitskaia, who was being hailed here as a "genius" by her illustrious team-mate Evgeni Plushenko after her precociously brilliant performance helped the Russians win the gold medal in the team event.

Yet if young Julia, who may end up being Sochi 2014's answer to the enchanting elfin gymnast Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, is, as one headline put it, "a diamond", then Takanashi might be a "crazy diamond" as she tries
to become the trailblazing first women's Olympic ski jump champion.

Takanashi is a phenomenon, just 5ft tall and utterly fearless. But you almost fear for her, having to shoulder the burden of a nation who utterly adore their ski jumpers and who feels that a young girl who has just turned 17 is the one to end their Winter Olympics medal drought, the very best hope in their 113-strong team.

It will also be in an event which has quite captured everyone's imagination here. The women's ski jumping fraternity have been battling for more than a decade against prejudice, inequality, sexism and fears of authorities who maintained that the most soaringly eye-catching of all Olympic events was entirely a man's world.

Yet when Takanashi, who has been dominant all winter, winning 10 of her 13 World Cup competitions, competes against Daniela Iraschko-Stolz of Austria, it will provide a duel between two of the most fascinating personalities of these Olympic Games.

Iraschko-Stolz, married to her female partner, is one of the few openly gay athletes here who has been prepared to wade into the debate about Russia's law banning homosexual "propaganda".

The 30-year-old is against the idea of protests here because she thinks "no one cares" but, while adding that she believes the world should give Russia time to take the "right steps", she also notes that she planned to offer her principal statement by "jumping pretty good".

So far, that is exactly what she has been doing. The only woman to trouble Takanashi all winter, she began by dominating the first two training events, while the young Japanese complained that she had seen nothing like this hill back home and wished that she had more time to practice.

Actually, though, nobody has seen anything like this wonderful RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre, a complex which cost pounds 160?million to build after mistakes in construction and cost overruns forced President Vladimir Putin to ensure that the man overseeing the project, Akhmed Bilalov, was sacked and stripped of his position as vice-president of the Russian Olympic Committee.

It could be argued that it stands as the most spectacular symbol of the extraordinary ambition - and excess - of the whole Sochi adventure, but it certainly cuts the most striking site of the Games when lit up at night and dominating the skyline from the streets of the mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana.

Last night saw one final three-jump dress rehearsal, with both the favourites highlighting their superiority, the Japanese producing the best leap of 101.5?metres on two occasions to suggest that she now really has the hang of the hill and the Austrian winning the other round.

If Takanashi cannot deliver after her fantastic season, it will be a grievous blow for the 4,000 folk of her little home town of Kamikawa on the island of Hokkaido, who have planned a fireworks party to celebrate a heroine who could even surpass the town's ultimate ski jumping hero, Masahiko Harada.

Harada was the fantastic jumper who brought the entire nation to a standstill in Nagano in 1998 as they watched him spellbound in the team event, trying to win the Olympic gold medal that had always frustratingly deserted him.

At the last gasp, he succeeded and thus avoided being forever seen as a kind of Jimmy White of the ski jump.

On a packed Mount Hakuba with thousands of fans waving flags, that was the high point of Japanese fervour for the event. Now, in Takanashi, Harada sees someone who will not let her nation down either, a girl who has been leaping since she stopped doing ballet and panto and started concentrating on the same thrills that her brother and father would get from ski jumping.

"I found it was really fun when I jumped," Takanashi said. "I enjoyed flying like a bird." The youngster, thinks Harada, was born for this moment. "Sara's gold medal chance is 100 per cent. Haven't you seen her jump?" he said. "It can be 500 per cent."

It did not look that clear cut last night, however. Although Takanashi had three jumps of over 100m under the floodlights here last night, Iraschko-Stolz had two. The scene has been set perfectly for the women's historic duel on the hill.


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