Commentary

'Wide World of Sports' crash hits home

Originally Published: April 29, 2011
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

Editor's note: To mark the 50th anniversary of ABC's "Wide World of Sports" on Friday, Page 2 looks back at one of the series' enduring memories.

He had a name. Vinko Bogataj. A pin-wheeling rubber man, sliding and spinning, now aloft, now grounded, still tumbling, time and again, forever wiping out for our amusement. Did we ever look away? He had a name. He was somebody's son. Vinko Bogataj. The fall guy. Defeat incarnate.

He had dreams. Maybe it's best to start there. Before he became an unwitting icon -- a generation's visual shorthand for futility, the splattered ski jumper featured in the opening montage of ABC's "Wide World of Sports" -- Bogataj wanted to fly. To speed down an icy slope and give gravity the slip, wearing waxed planks for shoes. It's hell of a thing. People have done stranger.

Born in Slovenia, he jumped for Yugoslavia, a place that no longer exists, bound up in the Cold War geopolitics of a world since gone defunct. Bogataj was young, just in his early 20s. He grew up on a farm, was one of eight children. His whole life was yet to come.

Back then, they called it ski flying. As in: the Ski-Flying World Championships, held on a snowy winter day in Oberstdorf, West Germany. The year was 1970. Bogataj wore goggles and a knit sweater. He had a matching ski cap. On his first jump, he careened down the frozen track, tucked in a jumper's steely crouch, his cheeks fluttering in the wind.

The track stopped. Bogataj did not. He soared. Touched down. Put too much weight on the front of his skis. He ended up on his back, then his belly, arms splayed above his head like a snow angel.

This crash, no one remembers.

Second jump. Thicker snow. Stronger winds. The track was icy. Dangerous, even. Make that more dangerous. For safety, race officials shortened its length.

No matter.

Bogataj speeds downhill, once more into the breach. Before reaching the track's U-shaped bottom, he slips completely, falling backwards. He extends his right arm behind him, a toothpick anchoring a hydrofoil speedboat.

Look out! says the man in the announcing booth.

Bogataj veers like a fishtailed big rig.

Look at him go!

Bogataj goes. And goes. Right over the side of the ramp, end over end, back over front, limbs and skis twirling, a whirling human gyroscope.

Oooooh baby!

A plastic banner at the bottom of the track reads OBERSTDORF. Bogataj's head -- or is it his hand? -- rips it asunder. He nearly decapitates a ducking track worker. His silly knit cap goes flying. He corkscrews, goes limp, makes like a rag doll. He lands in a snow bank, near a group of spectators.

Later, Bogataj will be wrapped like a corpse, loaded onto a stretcher and taken by ambulance to a hospital. Doctors will diagnose him with a concussion. He will ask -- plead -- to be taken back to the slope.

Later still, he will return home. Go back to work. Drive a forklift. Retired from ski jumping, he is now a landscape painter.

What a terrible fall!

For decades, Bogataj's terrible fall made him one of the best-known athletes on the planet. Before the Internet's ever-changing grab bag of video memes fragmented our collective visual memory, his jump was the original fail. And even now, there's something thrilling about the footage -- the voyeuristic desire to see another man biff; the childlike, rubbernecking giddiness captured in oooooh baby!; the there-but-for-the-grace relief that comes with realizing the unlucky Slovenian is just a nameless, tumbling little stick figure on television, and not someone we personally know or love.

Still, that doesn't fully capture why Bogataj endures -- why, when ABC held a "Wide World of Sports" 20th Anniversary gala in 1981, he received the loudest ovation in a room that included Nadia Comaneci and Muhammad Ali. (Ali wanted an autograph.) No, there's something else. Something deeper. Bogataj endures because the agony he embodies is nothing like a ski crash at all. It's neither rare nor spectacular. To the contrary, it's commonplace and mundane, like a shrug. Winning is a special occasion. Losing is everyday, the natural order of things.

Athletes know this better than most.

We follow and play sports for transcendence born of collective fantasy. For the ecstatic moments of unambiguous triumph that so often elude us in the messy muddle of life. For the fleeting sense that we're succeeding, that we can fly, that the bloom of youth will never fade. The thrill of victory. Thing is, fantasy only goes so far. You can dive off the cliffs of Acapulco. But you can't stay underwater forever. The wide world of sports we know and love mostly involves the flip side -- coming up short, getting knocked out, growing old. Returning to Earth.

Defeat, in all its agonizing guises.

The fall guy had a name. Don't we all? Vinko Bogataj wanted to fly. In our private hopes and dreams, our shared frail mortality, the rest of us barrel down an icy slope, soaring as high and as long and as far we can. They call it ski jumping. It's really ski falling. In the end, there's only one way to go. Gravity always wins. Time remains undefeated.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.


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