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“The Champions League of the ski jumpers”

Four Hills Tournament

“The Champions League of the ski jumpers”

How the Four Hills Tournament acquired the status it enjoys today.

Interview with Paul Ganzenhuber, former Chairman of the FIS Committee

Text: Eva Schwienbacher, Picture: GEPA / Florian Ertl

The Four Hills Tournament is the highlight of the season for athletes and winter sports fans. One person who has shaped the development of ski jumping in various functions for over 40 years, is Paul Ganzenhuber. The former coach talks about the importance of the tournament, the pressures exerted on coaches and athletes and the importance of success.

"It was always my greatest goal to win the tournament. When the time finally came, I asked myself:  Where's all the hype? These words come from no less a figure than Paul Ganzenhuber. Originally from Salzburg, Ganzenhuber now lives in Tirol and was formerly involved in the alpine sector. He was the driving force behind ski jumping in Austria for many years: as a trainer, educator and finally as director at Stams Ski College (from 1973 to 2005). He was head trainer (from 1984 to 1988) and sporting director of ski jumpers in the Austrian Ski Federation ÖSV (from 1988 to 1999) and scheduling chairperson for the International Ski Federation FIS since 1988. 

Ganzenhuber helped shape the sporting careers of greats such as Andi Felder, Erns Vettori, Franz Neuländtner and Heinz Kuttin. And even after dedicating over forty years to ski jumping, the now 74-year-old is still keen to remain involved in the sport. As Vice President of the Romanian Ski Jumping Association, he is currently working on the development of winter sports in Romania.

"No longer than a football match.”

As Chairman of the FIS Committee, Paul Ganzenhuber introduced many innovations to the sport, for example the reduction of the number of participants from 140 to 90, 70 and finally 50. "The idea behind it all was that a jumping competition should not last longer than a football match," says Ganzenhuber. He wanted to make jumping more media-effective and interesting for the spectators. He succeeded

When it comes to the Four Hills Tournament, he came up with a very special qualification procedure with knockout system, which is still a characterising feature of the competition. The procedure: the 50th qualifier also wears bib number 50 and jumps - and this is what is special about the Four Hills Tournament - against the first. The second qualifier jumps against the 49th and so on. In so doing, you get 25 pairs and 25 winners.  "The worst jumps against the best, is in the media spotlight and can represent his country. That is of course an incredible incentive,” Ganzenhuber explains the idea behind the system.

Paul Ganzenhuber was Bergisel ski jumping competition director for 13 years. © GEPA

Other changes, such as the introduction of an inrun track, the switch from manual distance measurement to video distance measurement or the standardisation of ski jumps, also stem from his initiatives. "The professionalization of ski jumping facilitated the planning and feasibility of the competition and increased public interest," says the 74-year-old. 

Today, ski jumping has become an integral part of the winter sports calendar. And the Four Hills Tournament is a sporting highlight for athletes and sports fans alike at the turn of the year.

"It is enormously difficult to demonstrate similar good form on every hill."

The Four Hills Tournament is one of the sporting world’s most important and best-known tours. How did the Four Hills Tournament acquire the status it enjoys today? Paul Ganzenhuber: As an athlete you have to jump very well four times, in order to position yourself amongst the leaders. If you mess up just once, your chances in the tournament are over. It is the Champions League of ski jumpers. Weather conditions can change constantly during these four days. For example, it could rain at the opening jumping in Oberstdorf, get warmer at the New Year's Jump in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the “foehn” wind may blow at the Bergisel Jump in Innsbruck, before temperatures drop again for the Epiphany Ski Jump in Bischofshofen. This means that new challenges must constantly be contended with. "It is enormously difficult to demonstrate similar good form on every hill. That is why the tournament is so athletically challenging.

Four venues, four facilities, four competitions. What are the prerequisites for an athlete to be amongst the leading contenders? He must have tremendous consistency, a strong psyche, technical know-how and also be physically fit enough to survive the ten days. The Four Hills Tournament is hugely stressful: travelling from one venue to another, the massive public interest, the media pressure.

How did the idea of organising a ski jumping tour come about? Back in the 1950s, the leading ski jumping associations in Central Europe of that time - from Germany, Innsbruck and Bischofshofen - joined forces and developed the idea of organising a major event during the Christmas season, when there was nothing else going on in alpine sports. Back then, ski jumping did not enjoy the same level of media coverage as alpine skiing. Firstly, it was easier to find people at Christmas to help with the organisation and work on the ski jump; secondly, the people were at home anyway and fancied a change. A two hill tournament was first arranged, followed by a three hill tournament - and it just grew from year to year. In the meantime, the tour has grown to become one of the most important events in sport. TV audiences are comparable to those of the Hahnenkamm Races.

A look back: since the foundation of the Four Hills Tournament, Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck has been a tour venue.

The hill was rebuilt and extended for the Olympic Winter Games of 1964 and 1976 in Innsbruck. 

© Bergisel BetriebsgesellschaftmbH 

You were the Bergisel ski jumping competition director for 13 years. What were your tasks? I was responsible for managing the competition. I was a member of the FIS Committee at the same time, which meant that I could not allow myself to make any mistakes because as a FIS member, it was my job to find and criticise any faults. And suddenly I was under observation myself. It was a very valuable time for me because I could learn a lot about myself. How to deal with stress situations? Can I stay calm, make clear decisions and not lose my head? I think I succeeded well in mastering the situations I found myself in.

What can go wrong? Can you give examples? The track down the inrun may suddenly break, strong gusts of wind may blow up, or an athlete can of course fall. If the latter is the case, the question naturally arises as to whether you share some of the blame. It can also happen that someone jumps too far, because the inrun on the hill is too long. Or vice versa, if you don’t have the nerve to make the inrun longer, the distances the athletes jump are inevitably shorter. If that happens, it doesn’t take long before boos can be heard from the stadium full of 20,000 spectators. One also bears responsibility with regards to the media. It's a balancing act to ensure the safety of the athletes and facilitate the best possible performance, while satisfying audience’s expectations. But at the end of the day, safety comes first.

"The four hills have differences that every jumper has to find their own way of dealing with."

What is so special about the hill in Innsbruck? Before the reconstruction of the four jumps of the tour, each jump was very, very special. That changed with standardised jump construction. The jumps are now quite similar. What distinguishes them are the ski jump profile and the inrun. There is a natural inrun at Bischofshofen. Garmisch has a very modern jump, which is somewhat flatter, but you need work up a lot of speed to jump far. Innsbruck is a ski jump that presents a special challenge to the jumper due to the fact that it is freestanding. They all have differences that every jumper has to find their own way of dealing with. And not everyone jumps the same on every hill.

Innsbruck athlete, Andreas Kofler, was the Four Hills Tournament overall winner in the winter of 2009/2010. © EXPA/JFK

You were also the ÖSV (Austrian Ski Assoc.) head coach. Pressure and expectations are enormous ahead of such an important competition, especially with it being in your own country. How do you still manage to provide the athletes with positive support? It is all about how you deal with the athlete during preparations, how deep the trust goes. Whether the athletes trust the coach or just obey his commands. One of my main goals has always been to be deal with the athletes in a trustworthy manner, to show them that they can rely on me just as I can rely on them. I don’t play games during training, but determine facts. When we talked, it was important for me to communicate self-confidence to them and to appear self-confident myself. This is not easy, and has a great deal to do with psychology. There are several ways to go around it. You can use a psychologist, for example, if you have the money. But that wasn’t yet possible during my time, it was the trainer's job.

So you took on this role? Yes, and for what it is worth, we won the tour twice on the trot during my short period as a coach.

What does it feel like when you win the tour as a coach? It was one of my greatest goals to win the tour one day. Back in 1986, when I won the tour for the first time and we even had a double win with Ernst Vettori and Franz Neuländtner - I was delighted at first. But then I asked myself: Is this it? Where is all the hype? The euphoria? After the victory, the hype quickly subsided and gave way to disillusionment.

The Four Hills Tournament programme

Opening Jumping in Oberstdorf:  30th December
New Year’s Ski Jumping in Garmisch-Partenkirchen:
1st January
Bergisel Ski Jump, Innsbruck: 4th January
Epiphany Ski Jumping in Bischofshofen: 6th January

View of the Bergisel Jump, one of the Tirolean capital’s most famous landmarks. © TVB Innsbruck Mario Webhofer

Does this have anything to do with the fact that the athletes continue straight into the next event?  Yes, exactly. You have to bring the athletes back down to earth again and make it clear: next week we will be jumping somewhere different. You can bask in all the fame later on, but not yet. And the same applies to the trainer. After the tour, you travel to the next World Cup venue. If things go wrong for the athlete there, newspapers won't report about the fact that he won the Four Hills Tournament, but that his current performance is disastrous.

Can you enjoy the victories today? Enjoy? They bring me pleasure. It is a nice experience. But I am still very realistic. This is what I am hired for. Throughout my years as a coach, there have been much more important things to accomplish: building good camaraderie, developing an understanding that success is not everything, that you also have to be strong if success eludes you. These are things that I have done well. I am more proud of them than of the many successes.

In sport, only success counts. Success is important. You work hard on winning. Coming fourth just doesn’t count. But at some point you have to realise for yourself that success is short-lived. Success is the apex of what you are currently working for. Then it starts all over again. But what happens during this process, how you build success, which tools to use in its development, be it physical, technical or psychological, this is much more important and much more enduring. The greatest success is when you can say as a winner: I have achieved much, much more than that. I helped the people to develop a foundation on which they could build, even after the sport is over.

How do you follow the tournament these days? I'm still Chairman of the World Cup Committee. As such, I'm partly involved in the tour because I want to exchange ideas with my colleagues. At the same time I am vice-president of the Romanian Ski Federation, have worked on developing ski jumpers there, and want to gradually see that they get into the World Cup and take part in the tour, so I am always involved in the action. 

Many thanks for the interview.

History of the Four Hills Tournament

After the Second World War, German ski jumpers were forbidden from competing abroad by the FIS. Be that as it may, the Innsbruck jumpers invited their comrades from the Partenkirchen Ski Club (SCP) to ski jump at the Innsbruck Seegrube - the Bergisel Jump was still in ruins. After the German Ski Association (DSV) was reinstated within FIS, SCP organised its traditional New Year's ski jumping on January 1st, 1949. During the night ski jumping on 17th May 1952 at Seegrube, the organisational plan for the "German-Austrian Ski Jumping Tournament" was presented. It was a foregone conclusion from the very start that the three venues of Partenkirchen, Innsbruck and Bischofshofen would take part in the tournament. For equality reasons, the SCP was commissioned to find a second German partner venue. Berchtesgaden, Füssen and Oberammergau were considered. However, because audience catchment areas were the same as those of the founder clubs, they decided not to use these locations, which is how the collaboration with Ski-Club Oberstdorf came about.


© TVB Innsbruck Carl Johannes Rokitansky

© 2017 Tirol Werbung