Ski jumping pioneer Helmut Recknagel was born in 1937 in Steinbach-Hallenberg, in what later became the German Democratic Republic.
He caused a sensation when, at the age of 19, he became the first non-Scandinavian jumper to win the coveted Holmenkollen Festival title in Norway. During that triumph he showcased his distinctive jumping style, developed in conjunction with his East German team-mates and which involved him leaning forward with his arms stretched out in front of him.
He followed up two years later by winning the Four Hills, the prestigious competition founded in 1953 and held in front of large crowds in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bischofshofen (GER) Oberstdorf and Innsbruck (AUT), and which remains as popular as ever today.
One of the best technicians of his generation, Recknagel was 22 when he travelled to Squaw Valley as part of the United Team of Germany, carrying the flag for his delegation at the Opening Ceremony.
Held before a large crowd on the final day of the Games on Squaw Valley’s K-80 hill – a cutting-edge facility opened the year before at a pre-Olympic test event – the ski jumping competition was described in the Official Report as one of the most exciting events of the 1960 Winter Olympics.
“American audiences, particularly those from California, had seen little or no jumping competition prior to the Games,” noted the Official Report. “Seeing the best performers in the world in their first look at the sport was truly a thrill for an extremely appreciative and responsive crowd.”
Wearing the No44 bib and adopting his distinctive technique, Recknagel soared out to 93.5m in the first round – far and away the longest jump of the competition – and he gained perfect style marks for his landing. The gold was all but his, with the 19-year-old Finn Niilo Halonen lying second behind him and Nikolai Kamenskiy of the USSR and Antsen Samuletsen of the USA tied for third.
The competition leader then pulled out the longest jump of the second round, 84.5m, once again gaining maximum style marks to rack up an overall points total of 227.2 and win gold by some distance from Halonen and Austria’s Otto Leodolter, who leapt from sixth to third with jump of 83.5m, the second best of the round.
Recknagel’s victory was the first by a non-Norwegian or Finnish jumper at the Winter Games. Squaw Valley 1960 was also the last Games to feature just the one ski jumping competition, as the programme for Innsbruck 1964 heralded the inclusion of both normal and large hill events.
Recknagel’s Olympic triumph saw him become the first non-Scandinavian athlete to win the Holmenkollen Medal, which is awarded annually to the best Nordic sportsperson. The East German won the Four Hills title again the following year and went on to take the 1962 large hill world title in Zakopane (POL), where he also won bronze on the normal hill.
He later became a member of the East German National Olympic Committee and, following reunification in 1990, a member of the German NOC. He also went on to become a respected international ski jumping judge. In 2007, aged 70, he published the autobiography Eine Frage der Haltung (“A Question of Posture”).