Winter Olympics: Ill wind blows Harada and a nation no good

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The Independent Online
GOLD, glory and redemption beckoned to Masahiko Harada here yesterday - then left him with nothing but a wounded smile.

In a ghastly re-run of history, the ski jumper whose faltering final effort lost Japan the 1994 Olympic team gold let the individual title slip away on the last jump of the competition.

As he stood at the top of the 90-metre hill, the 29-year-old world champion needed only to get within four metres of the 90.5m with which he had led the rankings in the first of the two specified jumps.

A rapt crowd of 40,000, packed around the base of the jump, had just seen the Finnish competitor Jani Soininen move into the gold medal position, one point ahead of a glamorous Japanese heart throb, the newcomer Kazuyoshi Funaki.

And now the brilliant, sunlit morning was coming to its climax. A thousand sirens sounded; a thousand Rising Sun flags waved, as if in a gale. Japan's Crown Prince who had seen the speed skater Hiroyasu Shimizu earn the hosts' first gold the previous day, leaned forward in his seat as a nation's hopes soared - and fell short. 84.5 metres. Fifth place. Gold to the Finn.

It was an inestimably bitter moment for the man who - by a mocking irony - comes from Sapporo, where Japanese jumpers so famously captured gold, silver and bronze in the 1972 Winter Olympics.

Before Harada had come to a standstill, Soininen had begun to leap up and down in the realisation that he had followed in the glorious jumping tradition of Matti Nykanen, who won three golds and a silver in the 1980s.

Soininen would be well advised to cease following Nykanen's example at this point, as the latter, with three broken marriages behind him, has recently been reduced to working as a stripper for women's parties.

As Harada removed his helmet, he appeared to be grinning - although he might simply have been screwing up his face as he stared into the sun.

"I am sorry," he said afterwards. What more could he say?

The drama of the occasion had been heightened by a decision to hold Soininen back for more than two minutes during what the judges - who included Japan's gold medallist from 1972, Yukio Kasaya - deemed to be unfairly advantageous head winds.

Soininen expressed his dissatisfaction with the delay afterwards. "These are the Olympic Games and I think that is not fair," he said.

An organiser said it had been decided that no competition should continue if winds rose above two metres per second, and the reading when Soininen first came to jump was four metres per second.

But the Finnish coach, Matti Pulli, said he had never seen such a delay for so slight a wind. "Maybe the delay ruined the chances of Harada," he added. "On his second jump, the conditions were even worse."

Asked if he knew what he had needed to do on his second jump, Harada replied wistfully: "I knew if I made the 90 metres line I would make everyone happy..."

He has two chances to redeem himself - the team competition, and the second individual event on the larger, 120-metre hill. If ever a man needs a change of luck, it is Masahiko Harada.

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