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Monday, February 18, 2002
Germans edge Finland in closest competition ever

By Anne Marie Cruz
ESPN The Magazine

PARK CITY, Utah -- Martin Schmitt drops out of the sky, hoping to redeem himself.

After falling flat on his face in the individual K90 and K120, Germany's ski-jumping rock star rides the air, floating for 405 feet. The distance seems long enough to put his team in first place, but his style points would decide whether the Germans or the Finns would bring home the gold.

Martin Schmitt
Martin Schmitt, Germany's ski-jump rock star, hid his face in his hands while waiting for his score to appear on the scoreboard.

Seconds tick away. Crouched low on his skis, Schmitt hides his face in his hands. Over and over, his brain murmurs, "Bittebittebittebittebitte." (Translation: pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease). The Finns hold their breath. "The waiting, it's terrible because the scores are very near," Finland's Risto Jussilainen recalls later, rubbing his forehead in agony.

Nearly half a minute passes, when 55 style points flash on the board. Thanks to Schmitt, the Germans edge the Finns by the thinnest of margins: 0.1 points. His teammates -- Sven Hannawald, Stephan Hocke and Michael Uhrmann -- jump Schmitt, burying him in a snow-encrusted pigpile. Schmitt and Hannawald would not have to settle for team silver, as they did in Nagano.

Risto sighs. "The scoreboard is empty for a very long time," he says. "When their score is 0.1 better, it's a big hit in the face."

Meanwhile, the Slovenians pump their fists, having won the bronze. On the strength of spectacular jumping by Robert Kranjec, a 21-year-old hairdresser from Kranj, who flew the farthest with a 133.0 jump in the first round, Slovenia had its first medal of these Games.

Veteran Primoz Peterka rests his head on Kranjec's shoulder for a moment. Then, as the economist and two-time overall World Cup champ from Moravce lifts his head, Kranjec playfully shoves his flowers in Peterka's face.

After the flower ceremony, Schmitt pulls an Ozzie Smith, doing standing backflips to amused applause, while Hocke and Hannawald toss their flowers to German flag-waving fans. Kranjec, an upstart at this season's Four-Hills Tournament, with two top-10 finishes, sits on his skis for several minutes. Men in Austin Powers-esque silver jackets and aqua pants hug his helmeted head and pat him heavily on the back. When Kranjec finally stands up again, his ecstatic countrymen lift him and his teammates on their shoulders. Bulbs flash as Kranjec and Peterka, along with their teammates Damjan Fras and Peter Zonta, thrust their bouquets in the air.

"This is an even greater success than the silver medal our team won in Calgary in 1988," says Boris Pejsak, a Slovenian equipment technician, after bearhugging everyone in sight. "All the teams are much stronger now."

Double gold medalist Simon Ammann of Switzerland would not be on the medal stand Monday. Unlike his doppelganger, Harry Potter, who always seems to single-handedly win Quiddich matches, Ammann alone couldn't put the Swiss team on the podium, even with a 427-foot final jump. His squad ended up seventh.

In the interview room, the athletes crowd together at the table, looking like so many underdone TV dinners with their pasty-white faces and tinfoil-looking padded suits. Kranjec clasps Jussilainen's hand in congratulations. While the Germans field most of the questions, Jussilainen nibbles at his nails, and Kranjec and Peterka shrink down in their seats, disappearing behind their helmets resting on the table. Someone asks the Germans if they empathize with the Finns' disappointment. Finn Janne Ahonen cranes his neck to shoot a meaningful look around the room.

"I think I know how the Finns feel," said Schmitt, through a translator. "But their team is still young, so maybe they will win next time." Jussilainen arches his eyebrows at his rival's response, then smirks and turns to shake Schmitt's hand sarcastically, cracking up the roomful of reporters.

"No, of course we won't be filing a protest," says Ahonen, in response to the inevitable question. Adds Jussilainen: "The Germans were a little bit better today. We know it. We have to celebrate this silver, too."

When the Germans won the K120 team worlds last year, they all dyed their hair, and today they joked about a similar hirsute victory tribute.

"This time, we'll all grow beards and sideburns," Michael Urhmann said. "But Stephan here will need some glue and fake hair." Hocke grins sheepishly, and everyone laughs.

Nothing like winning by a whisker.

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.