by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

HAKUBA, Japan — To appreciate the scene — one man, leaping into the sky, soaring above his flag-waving countrymen — you must first appreciate the culture. Japan is a place where you do not stand out, where conforming is good, where joining is good. Those who dare to be different risk scorn and disgrace. There is an expression taught to the very young: “The nail that stands out gets hammered down.”

Masahiko Harada knows all about that. Four years ago, he was such a nail — a world champion in ski jumping. He stood out. He stood tall. In Lillehammer, Norway, he stood one leap from giving his Japanese team its first Olympic gold medal in ski jumping since the 1972 Sapporo Games.

All he needed was a final effort of 105 meters. For a man of his talents, it was a piece of cake. A two-inch putt. A layup. He dropped into his tuck, came down the ramp, lifted into the sky above Lillehammer’s Gudbrandsdalen Valley
…and got hammered down.

It was awful. A complete flub. A collapse. His takeoff was flawed, his landing thudded, he came down 7.5 meters too short and the groan could be heard all the way across the Pacific Ocean. Harada fell to the snow, his head in his hands, his heart in his boots. His error had just cost his team the gold.

It is hard enough to live with something like that in the West — where Americans are currently complaining about our lack of medals at these XVIII Winter Games. Lack of medals? Try blowing a gold in a country where shame is a national currency.

We have no idea what Masahiko Harada, now 29, went through for the four years between that fateful Lillehammer jump and this morning in Japan, a national holiday, the whole country watching, when he got his long-awaited chance at redemption. And we can still only imagine …

It was a sparkling morning at the Hakuba village ski area, and the mountains stood watching like God’s audience. The ski jump competition consists of two attempts, and Harada was one of the final jumpers in the first round. When his name was called, he stepped onto the ramp in his silver-blue speed suit and pulled his goggles over his eyes. Below was a 90-meter hill, and a sea of countrymen waving the Japanese flag.

With no sign of nerves, he dropped into his tuck, came down the ramp, lifted off perfectly, hung horizontally over his skis, as if dangled by a wire, and landed to a rousing chorus of horns and bells and wild, ecstatic cheering. He had gone 91.5 meters, farther than anyone in the round. He was in first place.

“Yes! Yes!” he yelled at the crowd, pumping his fist in exultation. Harada — whose wide jowls and broad smile suggest a delightful clown — is nicknamed
“Happy Harada” here in Japan. He was happy now. One jump down. One to go for gold.

Less than 45 minutes later, he was once again staring glory in the face. His young teammate, Kazuyoshi Funaki, went two jumpers ahead of him and aced a 90.5, temporarily good enough for the lead.

Then came a Finnish jumper, Jani Soininen, who soared 89 meters, which gave him the temporary lead.

Still, it was all just buildup, right? The final jumper’s name was called —
“Masahiko Harada!” — and the noise at the bottom of the hill could have shaken the snow off the mountains. Harada, the favorite, who has won a fistful of World Cup events this season, didn’t even need to equal his first jump. Just come close and the gold and redemption were his.

He lowered his goggles, took a deep breath, and fell into his tuck. The end of the ramp drew closer …

If this were Hollywood, of course, he would break the world record. Land in his sweetheart’s arms. Kiss the gold and live happily ever after.

This is not Hollywood. This is the Olympics. And so, whatever cruel gag pulled Harada out of the sky too soon four years ago, somehow, maddeningly, did it again. He didn’t get good air beneath his skis, maybe that was it. Maybe it was the wind. Maybe trembling knees during liftoff.

Who knows the why? We know only the results. Despite his best efforts to hold his V-shaped form until the last dying instant, Harada landed incredibly short, 84.5 meters, the jump of a non-threat, the jump of an also-ran.

The jump of the defeated.

When he touched down, it was as if he hit the mountain’s mute button. The horns and bells fell silent. The crowd was stunned. Again? It happened again? Harada smiled gamely, as if convincing himself it was OK.

He had dropped from first to fifth.

There’s been a lot of noise about America not winning enough medals in Nagano. But in the eyes of Masahiko Harada, you understand that the Olympics are not about hardware. They are about going on without it. They are about believing in yourself enough to stand before your country, having made one painful mistake, knowing you could make another — and still trying.

Somewhere today, a very lonely ski jumper deserves at least a salute for letting his nail rise. He saw the big hammer in the sky and made the jump anyhow. You want to feel sorry for missed medals, start with him, not us.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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