Traverse Classics: At a ski jump competition in 1970, Vinko Bogataj, a Slovenian, executed what is perhaps the most famous wipeout in sports history. He fell as he sped down a ski jump takeoff ramp, careened off the end and sailed like a flailing rag doll into bystanders. The jump was caught on film, and producers of "Wide World of Sports," ABC's iconic Saturday television show, plugged the mishap into the show's weekly opening sequence, accompanied by the words, "agony of defeat." Bogataj wasn't killed, but he looked as though he should have been [see the video]. Just ask any of the millions of moms and dads tuned in each week and thinking about choosing a sport for their children.
The image had such can't-look-away pull that ABC never switched out the clip after they inserted it in the late 70's, even though film that accompanied "the thrill of victory," which preceded "the agony of defeat," was updated regularly until the show's end in 1997.
To the average American, all this is just pop culture who-knew, maybe good for a Trivial Pursuit answer some day. But in the two tiny towns, Ishpeming and Negaunee, that iron miners built a half-hour west of Marquette, some people say the clip of Bogataj was in part responsible for a dimming of their world. They believe that by frightening people about ski jumping, the scene helped steer American athlete families and fans away from a glorious sport that these communities once dominated on an international scale – one of the more unlikely sports dynasties in American history.
Amping up the feelings of injustice, ski jumping still reigns in Europe, where fans mob skiers like groupies chasing rock stars, and jumpers sign multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts. (Yooper ski jumpers speak enviously of a European who pocketed $6 million for putting a candy bar sticker on his helmet.) What's more, other extreme sports are raging in U.S. popularity, yet Americans are ignoring what could be considered the original X-game.
But devotees at the Ishpeming Ski Club are not giving up on their beloved sport. That comes as little surprise, given the club's endurance record and proven mettle. Formed in 1887, this is the oldest ski club in the nation, and the club has more National Ski Hall of Fame inductees than any other organization. If any community can vanquish the specter of Bogataj's fall and rekindle a culture of ski jumping, it's this one – if not all across the nation, at least here in the western U.P.
To find where dreams of ski jumping are on display, one must head to a small valley of forest and rock named Suicide Bowl – the name itself not a PR win. The valley is strung with five ski jumps and lies between the two burgs of Ishpeming and Negaunee. Toward dusk on a Thursday last February, a dozen people scatter around preparing for ski jump practice. A couple of teen girls and boys head into equipment trailers to don their jump suits. Their dads grab aluminum rakes to groom the jump landing areas. A guy in worn Carhartt coveralls works on a ski binding with a socket wrench.