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WINTER OLYMPICS 1998 | SPORT BY SPORT UPDATE

Funaki Sends a Nation Soaring With His Overwhelming Leap

February 15, 1998|Associated Press

HAKUBA, Japan — Kazuyoshi Funaki sparked long-awaited celebrations and tears of welled-up emotion among Japanese fans Sunday with a performance of soaring perfection off the 120-meter hill to give the nation its first Olympic ski jump title in 26 years.

Silver medalist on the 90-meter hill Wednesday, Funaki made sure of the gold this time with a massive leap of 132.5 meters, accompanied by a sweep of perfect style marks, to win the title.

Funaki, 22, seemed to stay aloft for hours, hanging in the air and barely moving his arms and skis. When he landed, the crowd knew he had won the gold and erupted in a huge release of pent-up emotion.

"It's common in Europe to have big crowds so I'm used to it," Funaki said. "I didn't really notice it, but then I did hear a very loud cheer and it sure was encouraging."

The last time a Japanese jumper won an Olympic event was 1972 in Sapporo, the last time the Winter Games were held in Japan. That was a 1-2-3 sweep.

The crowd was hoping for another triumph Sunday, after Funaki's near-miss off the small hill. And at one stage, it looked like a 1-2 Japanese finish.

Masahiko Harada had already smashed the hill record of 132 meters with a leap of 136 and appeared to have clinched second place ahead of 90-meter gold medalist Jani Soininen.

Harada soared so far it was difficult to measure the distance because there were no lines across the landing area at the point he hit the snow. No score went up on the scoreboard and it was only when everyone had finished and the medalists were lining up that it was confirmed Soininen had won the silver.

Harada and Soininen even went to the wrong places on the podium before the final results were confirmed and they swapped spots.

"I made a mistake in the first jump," a tearful Harada said. "I needed four more meters. I couldn't do my best jumps. I was very disappointed."

At least his first individual bronze medal partly made up for his previous Olympic flops. With the Japanese team in position to win the gold medal in 1994, Harada needed only a modest jump to clinch. But he had the worst leap of the round and the Germans won gold.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MEDALISTS

Ski Jumping

MEN'S 120-METER

Gold: Kazuyoshi Funaki, Japan

Silver: Jani Soinenen, Finland

Bronze: Masahiko Harada, Japan

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