Japan’s ageless flyer
Twenty years after winning his first Olympic medal, veteran Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai made two visits to the podium at Sochi 2014. He has continued to excel on hills around the world since then and is gearing up for yet another tilt at Olympic gold in PyeongChang.
Born under an Olympic starNoriaki Kasai was born on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1972, the year that the city of Sapporo, just a few dozen kilometres from the Kasai family home, welcomed the Olympic Winter Games. Kasai demonstrated a talent for sport from a young age, first trying his hand at track and field and excelling in the 10,000m. Then, at the age of nine, he ventured onto the local ski jumping hill for the first time and never looked back.
Career highlightsKasai competed at his first world championships in Lahti (FIN) in February 1989, and made his debut on the FIS World Cup circuit at Thunder Bay (CAN) in December the same year. By the end of the 2016/17 season, he had featured at 13 world championships, 526 World Cup events and seven Olympic Winter Games, recording 17 victories and 63 podium finishes in all competitions.
He enjoyed his finest hour in March 1992, when he was crowned world champion on the K180 hill at Harrachow (CZE). Prior to Sochi 2014, his greatest Olympic moment had come at Lillehammer in 1994, where, together with Jinya Nishikata, Takanobu Okabe and Masahiko Harada, he helped Japan clinch silver in the K120 team event, following a dazzling duel with Germany that went down to the wire.
Master of reinventionUp until 1994, Kasai employed a dangerous “V” style jumping technique, leaning so far forward that his skis were actually behind his ears, which led to him being nicknamed “Dumbo”.
Rule changes were then introduced, with the bindings being moved towards the middle of the ski, reducing the front section of the ski to 57 percent of its total length. It took the Japanese jumper several seasons to adapt to this change and re-establish himself as a major contender.
Games No.7 in SochiKasai tuned up for Sochi 2014 by becoming the oldest ever winner of an FIS ski jumping event at the age of 41 and seven months, on the HS200 hill at Tauplitz-Bad Mitterndorf (AUT). When his seventh consecutive Olympic Games came around in Russia, Kasai waged an epic duel on the large hill against the in-form Kamil Stoch of Poland.
Despite producing two huge jumps of 139m and 133.5m, the Japanese jumper had to settle for a second career silver, 20 years after the first, finishing 1.3 points adrift of the Pole. He was not finished yet though. The following week he joined up with Daiki Ito, Reruhi Shimizu and Taku Takeuchi to help Japan claim bronze in the team event, behind Austria and Germany, and complete his most successful Winter Games to date.
When asked about what drives him to keep on competing well into his 40s, Kasai replied: “Because I haven’t won [Olympic] gold yet.” His thirst for success unquenched, the Japanese flyer scored his 17th career win on the HS142 hill in Ruka (FIN) in November 2014, and then won FIS World Championship bronze with Sara Takanashi, Yuki Ito and Taku Takeuchi in the mixed team event in Falun the following year. Seven top-three finishes came Kasai’s way in the 2015/16 World Cup season, during which he appeared in his 500th event.Contemplating that landmark achievement, he said: “I’ve been competing in the World Cup ever since I was 16 years old. That's 27 years now. When I turned 40 it was my intention to continue jumping until I'm 50. This would now mean seven more years. Right now I feel fit enough to implement this plan. 500 is a nice number, but my favourite number is six. I want to reach 600 starts, so I consider the 500 as an intermediate mark. It's not the end. If I hold the record for the most starts, it might just as well be a record that nobody can ever beat.”