In the two years since claiming a best finish of sixth at PyeongChang 2018, ski jumper Kobayashi Ryoyu has turned himself into one of the most successful individual athletes on the planet. The 23-year-old, who is the reigning World Cup champion in all six individual categories, knows just where it all started…
Japan’s Kobayashi Ryoyu arrived at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as a callow 21-year-old with just one International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cup podium place to his name. He left three weeks later having recorded three top-10 finishes – sixth in the team event, seventh in the normal hill and 10th in the large hill – but more importantly, having discovered something about himself.
“I met a lot of athletes from other disciplines during PyeongChang 2018 and with each meeting a sense of my responsibility as a ski jumper grew on me,” Kobayashi said, stressing what an eye-opening experience it was to compete alongside the world’s best winter sport athletes.
It was PyeongChang 2018 that made the young Japanese jumper aware of just what an opportunity he had in front of him. The conditions may, as Kobayashi recalls, have been “windy and cold” but they were all part of an experience which helped turn him from a boy into a man.
The transformation was stunning, in both its magnitude and speed. Prior to his first Olympic Games, Kobayashi had a best World Cup finish of third in the team event in Ruka, Finland, in November 2017. Back at the same venue a year later he won double gold.
It started a staggering run of 15 wins in the next 20 World Cup stops. By the end of the season, Kobayashi was Japan’s first overall FIS World Cup champion and the winner of the prestigious Ski Flying, Raw Air, Planica 7 and Willingen 5 titles. He had also become just the third jumper in history to complete a clean sweep of the legendary Four Hills event.
When asked to reveal the technical changes that must have surely contributed to such unprecedented success, the new star of Japanese winter sport simply smiled.
“Everyone will succeed if I tell you,” he said.
It is an intriguing answer and one that perhaps only adds to the lure growing around the youngster. It is certainly easy to agree with him when he goes on to say “mental strength” is one of his biggest assets.
Kobayashi does have a gilded past on which to build as a Japanese ski jumper. Forty-eight years ago, compatriot Kasaya Yukio led an Olympic gold-silver-bronze sweep for Japan in the men’s normal hill at the 1972 Games, hosted in Kobayashi’s home town of Sapporo. Perhaps sensing a trend, Funaki Kazuyoshi once again delighted Japan’s Olympic fans by taking gold in both the individual large hill and the team event at the Nagano 1998 Games.
More recently, the young Kobayashi has had the charismatic Kasai Noriaki to look up to. At the age of 45, Kasai competed alongside Kobayashi at PyeongChang 2018, his eighth Olympic Games. Remarkably, the man who won a silver medal in Lillehammer in 1994 and a silver and a bronze in Sochi 20 years later, is openly targeting a ninth Games in Beijing in 2022. Takanashi Sara, the most successful female World Cup ski jumper of all-time, may well join him there as she seeks to add to the bronze medal she won in PyeongChang.
Yet despite this glittering history, Kobayashi sheepishly admits that his hero growing up was not even a ski jumper, let alone one of Japan’s greats. Instead, the teenager spent his youth adoring the style and daredevil nature of Norwegian snowboarder Torstein Horgmo. The now 32-year-old has won three Big Air X Games gold medals and was the first athlete ever to land a triple cork.
Kobayashi, however, has already achieved something Horgmo never managed. The snowboarding pioneer was all set to compete in slopestyle at Sochi 2014 but tragically broke his collarbone in practice.
“I’ve never been to Beijing, but I’m looking forward to going and competing there,” said Kobayashi, for whom Beijing 2022 will be a second chance at Olympic glory.
Should he succeed and win a fourth Olympic ski jump gold for Japan, he will be sure to acknowledge the huge influence of his brother. Older by five years, Kobayashi Junshiro made his World Cup debut back in 2011 and has been showing his sibling the way ever since.
We had different interests as children,” Kobayashi junior said with a smile. “But now we share a room during the World Cup season and we play lots of games together.”
Perhaps understandably, the younger Kobayashi started the current season a little slowly, back problems not helping the almost impossible task of matching his extraordinary exploits of 2018/19. But after failing to step up to the podium in his first four events, he soon got back into the swing of it, winning three of the following six.
“I’m still not 100 per cent,” he said in early February. “But I can still fight at this level.”