Whistler, B.C. -
Across Scandinavia and through parts of Europe, ski jumping's acclaim is beyond reproach. Finnish ski jumpers, for example, are heaped with the same rock star status of, say, Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.
In North America, however, ski jumping is linked not with its successes, but rather its failure, broadcast over and over again for years on American national TV.
Vinko Bogataj from the former Yugoslavia suffered only a mild concussion on March 21, 1970, but his misfortune has, rightly or wrongly, become the standard by which most sports fans on this side of the world view ski jumping.
'The thrill of victory,' the late Jim McKay's voice can be heard on ABC's Wide World of Sports, 'and the agony of defeat.'
Failure is measured by Bogataj, wiping out and tumbling down the ramp, crashing into a retaining fence.
Within Canada, ski jumping can be construed as little more than a fringe sport, a sideshow perhaps. Ski Jumping Canada doesn't receive Own The Podium funding because it has not provided sufficient international results - it would receive funding if a Canadian ski jumper were to place in the top 16 at a world championship or the top 12 at a World Cup event.
Canada has only a four-man team at the Vancouver Olympics, including this country's youngest athlete, 17-year-old Eric Mitchell.
All that aside, the sport is one that conjures much curiosity. At the Whistler Olympic Park Friday, thousands gathered to watch 61 jumpers fling themselves off the large hill, a 120 metre mass stretching up into the bright, wintery Whistler sky.
To watch ski jumping on television cannot do the sport justice. To see it live, the enormity of the landing area, the sheer height from which the jumper launches himself - at speeds approaching 95 kilometres per hour - is breathtaking.
From the base of the hill, the jumpers appear mere specks, mosquitos on a summer's evening as they settle on to a bench to start their run. Stairways on either side of the landing area eventually lead to the top of the tower, though they may as well touch the clouds.
"I remember my first jump, looking out and thinking nothing can be scarier than this," said young Mitchell. "If I could do this, I could do anything."
Mitchell and the three other jumpers (a proposal to allow females in the Vancouver Games was rejected because too few women in other countries compete) are all from Calgary, products of the Canada Olympic Park, a legacy of the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
That Stefan Read swayed towards skis probably should not come as a surprise given his uncle is former alpine skiing great Ken Read, he of the Crazy Canucks.
But Stefan Read is only 5-9 and 132 pounds. An alpine career, he realized quickly, was not in the cards. The other two are Mackenzie Boyd-Clowes and Trevor Morrice.
Unlike most jumpers who wait four or five years before making their first leap off the big hill, Mitchell was fast-tracked, taking his first foray at 11.
"You definitely don't go straight off the big ones," he said. "By no means is anybody going to come out here and go off the big jumps. That's suicide."
The average jump can take only eight to 12 seconds, of which only a handful are spent in flight.
Those of us not initiated to the sport can only stare and marvel at the courage of the competitors. To the jumpers, however, it's just another day at the office.
"First of all," said Mitchell, half-joking, "you have make sure your skis are on right."
The Canadian team trains in Park City, Utah, where it undergoes vigorous dryland workouts. Strong legs, Mitchell said, is a must for ski jumping.
Power on the takeoff, he says, separates a good jumper from a great jumper.
Mitchell will be in the mix for the 2014 Sochi, Russia Olympics. And given his age, 2018 isn't a stretch.
By then, he hopes Vinko Bogataj's agony of defeat will be forgotten.
"It's a great sport," he said. "You're on that gate up there, really seeing everything around you, and you're thinking about every milli-second leading up to that jump.
"You're going down that ramp and you feel yourself accelerating, and you're just waiting for that crucial moment at the end to leap into the air at the right time.
"On good jumps, you can feel yourself getting that acceleration off the end of the jump, and you can see the hill moving away from you. There's no better feeling."