Winter Sports Round-Up: A glittering weekend for Finns on skis
Poutiainen, Ahonen, and Manninen all head FIS points tables
It was such a dazzling weekend for the Finns on skis that it is almost hard to know where to begin.
Alpinist Tanja Poutiainen gets the nod by virtue of her three excellent performances on the slopes at Aspen, but it could just as easily have been ski-jumper Janne Ahonen, who annihilated the opposition twice at Ruka, or Nordic Combined specialist Hannu Manninen, who began the defence of his World Cup title in blistering fashion.
Poutiainen does Aspen
Tanja Poutiainen had three starts in a packed weekend, and she won two of them.
On Friday she collected her first-ever giant slalom World Cup victory, edging out last year’s overall World Cup winner Anja Pärson of Sweden by 0.09 seconds. Third place went to Croatian Janica Kostelic, who made a stirring comeback following injury and led after the first run.
Kostelic underwent multiple knee surgery last year, and was competing in only her second World Cup race in 19 months. She led the way by 0.6 seconds, but a superb second run by Poutiainen and some mistakes from the Croatian opened the door to the Finn.
Pärson, who had complained of being somewhat under the weather with sinusitis, nevertheless managed to produce the second-fastest time on her second run and she cut into Poutiainen’s lead, but not quite enough to overtake her.
This first race left the FIS overall standings nicely poised, as Pärson and Poutiainen had finished 1-2 (with the Swede ahead) in the season’s opening giant slalom at Sölden in Austria.
On Saturday, the women were back to the slalom, and the same three faces figured on the podium, with Kostelic and Poutiainen swapping places.
In many respects it was a complete mirror-image of the Friday giant slalom, as Poutiainen led on the first run only to slip back into third. Kostelic underlined her return to serious contention by winning her first World Cup race since March 2003.
She destroyed the course on her second run, and left Pärson 1.27 seconds in her wake, with Poutiainen a further 0.05 seconds back in third. Poutiainen’s second run was all of 1.37 seconds slower than the Croatian’s.
This second result left Pärson narrowly ahead in the overall standings, but not for long.
Sunday brought another Poutiainen victory, in the second of the Aspen slalom events, and on this occasion neither of her principal rivals managed to finish.
The normally rock-steady Pärson missed a gate and went out on her first run, and Kostelic - who led after the first run by nearly half a second - could not stay upright a second time, crashing out early in her second run.
This left Poutiainen a comfortable winner by a margin of more than a second over Manuela Mölgg of Italy, with American Kristina Koznick in 3rd.
The failure to score points by Anja Pärson handed Tanja Poutiainen the overall lead in the FIS World Cup, by 340 points to 260, and she heads the slalom standings with 160 points and shares the lead in the giant slalom with Pärson, as both have 180 points there.
Poutiainen now has three World Cup wins under her belt, after opening her account at home in the slalom at Levi last February.
The overall World Cup competition was dominated last year by Anja Pärson, but at least these early results offer the promise that Kalle Palander’s achievement among the men (Palander won the World Cup slalom title in 2003) could have a female counterpart before much longer.
Finland’s other female slalom World Cup contender Henna Raita finished 23rd and 20th, picking up a total of 19 points.
The women will be in action next in Lake Louise, Canada in early December. Two downhill events and one giant slalom could mean Poutiainen’s lead is narrowed somewhat, as she does not take part in the downhill events.
Janne Ahonen makes the Ruka K-120 hill look undersized
The World Cup ski-jumping season opener at the Ruka resort in Kuusamo featured two competitions on Saturday and Sunday (the Sunday competition was to have been held on Friday but was postponed because of high winds), with 50 competitors taking part on both days.
The other 49 might just as well have stayed at home, however, so dominant was the performance by the 2003/2004 World Cup winner Janne Ahonen.
To say that Ahonen destroyed the opposition would be almost an understatement, as he leapt several metres further than anyone else in all four of his jumps, and won Saturday’s competition by 43.2 points from Alexander Herr of Germany, and Sunday’s by an almost equally outrageous 20.1 points.
The fact that on Sunday the runner-up Thomas Morgenstern of Austria got as close as he did was almost entirely due to Ahonen’s mediocre points for his second jump.
The Finn was in grave danger of flying right down to the flat, and he brought his jump down forcibly at the 143-metre mark in order to avoid real physical damage.
As it was, he barely managed to remain on his feet and he was penalised accordingly, with unfamiliar scores of between 15.5 and 16.5 from the judges.
But since both Ahonen’s jumps were comfortably over 140 metres and Morgenstern jumped 135.5 and 133.5 metres, there was never any doubt about the winner. Janda Jakub of the Czech Republic took a surprise third spot.
On Saturday Ahonen had had no such landing problems, but his second jump on that occasion was equally spectacular by virtue of the fact that he managed to fly 142 metres while most of his opponents were having difficulty getting past the 120-metre mark after the starting-bar was lowered.
He had already set the pace with a prodigious opening leap of 144.5 metres.
Morgenstern came closest with a second leap of 133 metres, but it was only enough to pull him up to fifth place, behind Martin Höllwarth of Austria and Finland’s Matti Hautamäki. Hautamäki had a slightly disappointing weekend in the sense that he finished just off the podium in 4th place on both days, even though his first jump of 140.5 metres on Saturday was the only one all weekend to get into the same 10-metre-band with Ahonen.
The normally tight-lipped Ahonen celebrated his Saturday victory more energetically than usual, and it turned out that the reason was that it was his son Mico’s 3rd birthday, and this was a highly suitable present.
Naturally, two wins straight off the bat puts Ahonen into the top spot in the FIS tables, and enables him to continue to wear the leader’s yellow bib.
His close rival last season Roar Ljökelsöy of Norway could manage no better than 7th (Saturday) and 8th (Sunday), and the Norwegian contingent as a whole, who last season improved considerably under the tutelage of Finnish coach Mika Kojonkoski, turned in a rather listless performance.
This is not to say that the Finns - apart from Ahonen and Hautamäki - were exactly outstanding: Akseli Kokkonen and Tami Kiuru failed to qualify on Saturday and the third Finnish name on the results list was Janne Happonen down in 21st place.
Pekka Salminen (26th) and Veli-Matti Lindström (27th) managed to pick up a few World Cup points.
On Sunday, Kiuru took 20th spot, and Jussi Hautamäki was 21st. Lindström (27th again) was the only other Finnish competitor to get two jumps in.
The ski-jumping tour now heads for Trondheim in Norway for two events on 4th and 5th December.
Manninen makes haste on the ski-tracks
Ruka was also the scene for men’s and women’s cross-country skiing and for two Nordic Combined events.
In the Nordic Combined, Hannu Manninen was beginning the defence of his 2003/2004 World Cup win, and he started with a "beauty and the beast" approach in Saturday’s opener on the big hill and over 15 kilometres.
The beast was the ski-jumping, where Manninen could only finish 14th, and he started fully 3 minutes and 19 seconds behind the leader Daito Takahashi of Japan.
This was apparently no great obstacle to him, as he blew past one competitor after another, and inside the stadium he overtook Todd Lodwick of the United States and Takahashi to grab 2nd place.
By then, the race had been sewn up by the reigning World Champion Ronny Ackermann of Germany, who had started the skiing in 2nd place, 16 seconds down on Takahashi, and had overtaken his Japanese rival without difficulty.
Manninen has produced such remarkable rises through the field in the past, but coming from more than three minutes behind to finish less than 30 seconds off the pace left even him scratching his head. He had envisaged that 6th place might have been a possibility.
If he had given himself rather a lot of work to do with his ski-jumping on Saturday, in the sprint competition on Sunday - one jump on the K-120 hill and a run of 7.5 kilometres on the ski-track - he placed a more respectable ninth in the jumping, and started just 58 seconds behind Todd Lodwick.
Again, he was too fast for the opposition, and he finished 42 seconds ahead of Lodwick, with Ronny Ackermann, who jumped surprisingly poorly, relegated to third in the final results.
This time, however, Manninen didn't have to push quite so hard, and he was not in fact the fastest around the circuit. That honour went to Sebastian Haseney of Germany, but the German had only managed to jump himself into 41st place, and his skiing efforts could only raise him to 25th overall. If he ever learns to jump, the others should watch out.
In any event, it was a splendid opening double for Manninen, and Ackermann’s third place on Sunday means the Finn holds a slender 20-point lead over the German (180-160) in the World Cup standings, with Todd Lodwick in 3rd on 140 points.
The other Finns taking part had varying fortunes. Jaakko Tallus took 6th place on Saturday with an encouragingly solid skiing performance, but could only manage 12th in Sunday’s sprint, despite finishing in 7th place after the jumping. Jouni Kaitainen finished 17th and 15th.
The local boy, 16-year-old Anssi Koivuranta from Kuusamo, who is regarded as a future star, was brought badly down to earth as he was disqualified after the jumping on both occasions for using skis that were too long for someone of his weight and height.
The rule has been brought in to attempt to reduce the phenomenon of ski-jumpers who are dangerously underweight, but it appears to penalise youngsters who are still in a vigorous growth-spurt phase.
If the three stories above have suggested Finns are unbeatable with skis on their feet, the cross-country specialists will soon set that misconception right.
In Nordic skiing events held at Ruka over the weekend, Riitta-Liisa Lassila came 7th in the women’s 10 km freestyle, and Virpi Kuitunen managed a respectable 5th in the women’s 10 km classic, but among the men it was a different story. Juha Lallukka was the best-placed Finn in the 15 km freestyle event, trailing in in 21st place, and in the 15km classic we have to go down as far as 37th and 39th before we find the names of Tero Similä and Jari Isometsä.
You can’t win them all.