April 1958: A 165-foot high ski jump hill was erected for the three-day Centennial Ski Jump Tournament at Empire Stadium. Though over 20,000 people attended the event, it's said that 60,000 more watched from outside the fence for free.
VANCOUVER PUBLIC LIBRARY
A picture from April 29, 1958, showing the ramp being constructed for the Centennial Ski Jump Tournament, which was held at Vancouver's Empire Stadium. Artificial snow was used.
Brian Kent / VANCOUVER SUN
April 29, 1958: Finland's ski jumping champions Juhani Karkinen (left) and Ensio Hyytia (right) pose with Japanese jumper Akio Kasaya (centre) in a publicity shot a few days before the Centennial Ski Jump Tournament held at Vancouver's Empire Stadium.
VANCOUVER SUN FILES
May 2, 1958: Norway's Viggo Friling takes a jump at the Centennial Ski Jump Tournament at Empire Stadium in Vancouver.
Danny Scott / VANCOUVER SUN
Freeloaders: 1, fearless flyers: 0
50 years ago, an Empire Stadium ski jumping exhibition was a hit with the non-paying public
Gary Kingston, Vancouver Sun
Published: Friday, May 02, 2008
Yes, those young men were definitely fearless flyers. But still, there was something about the cardio-testing climb to the top of the 165-foot high jump constructed in the north end of old Empire Stadium that could shake even the most resolute of the two-plank daredevils.
"That tower was quite high," jumper Rudy Maki of Ishpeming, Mich., recalled in an interview this week. "It was quite spooky walking up there.
"I didn't really care for the heights, but it was a spectacular sight. It was majestic when you think about it."
While ski jumping had a significant presence on the North Shore mountains in the '30s, '40s and '50s - and was popular all around B.C. and the Pacific Northwest at places like Princeton, Revelstoke, Kimberley and Leavenworth and Snoqualmie, Wash., - this was something else entirely.
Built using 14 miles of tubular steel, the jump for the Centennial Invitational Tournament was reportedly the fourth-largest built in the world and the first in Canada. Another report claimed the 40-foot wide, 90-feet high landing area was the largest man-made jumping hill ever constructed.
The top jumpers in the three-day event held 50 years ago this weekend were soaring 140-150 feet, their wooden skis in tight formation, their chins thrust forward as if they were implanted with a navigation system chip.
"It was a different style [than today], a more graceful style," says Ted Hunt, a 1952 Canadian Olympian who had retired and was in the stands as a spectator. "The skis had to be absolutely together and the hands still and then that great forward lean and the Telemark landing."
Some of the leapers from that event have gone to the great landing ramp in the sky. Others have had their memories dulled by the passage of time.
Not so for the 73-year-old Maki.
"I remember it very well," he says. "It went pretty good. I was a winner in one of the [four] competitions."
It took a 25-man crew from Sarnia Scaffolds (Western) Ltd. 13-working days to set up the launching pad that dwarfed the covered stands of Empire.
Two machines capable of converting 300-pound blocks of ice into "snow" in eight seconds were brought in and blowers and hoses used to lay down a ribbon of white for the in-run and out-run, which extended the 110-yard length of the football field. The skiers would run into a pile of straw at the south end of the stadium.
The tournament was an ambitious, and ultimately costly, undertaking for the Vancouver Centennial Committee, which brought in Finnish stars Juhani Karkinen and Ensio Hyptia, who had gone 1-2 at at the world championships in Lahti, Finland, that winter and Japanese star Akio Kasaya. The 31-man field was filled out with with top American, Canadian and local jumpers, several of them Finns or Norwegians who had relocated to B.C. or who were in Vancouver on student visas.
The costly aspect came from the parsimonious nature of the locals.
While the event, held over three nights and a Saturday afternoon, attracted 24,928 paying customers, the Vancouver Sun reported that more than 60,000 "freeloaded from parked cars, camp chairs and apple boxes. Sloping streets above the [east side of the] stadium provided strategic locations for field glasses."
Tournament spokesman Dave Matthews told the paper that 40,000 paying fans were needed to break even and that organizers could lose $10,000 to $15,000 on a budget of $42,000.
Of course, Stukus, or the Loquacious Lithuanian as he was known, claimed in his column that he could have staged the event for far less.
"They could have saved a lot of money, time and trouble by using the face of the B.C. Electric Building and an awning at, say the fifth floor, to get the same effect," he wrote. "It wouldn't have cost more than $37."
There was a band in attendance each night and a handful of local skiers dressed up in clown outfits and performed stunts to give the show a carnival air.
Erik Haage did a somersault from a standing position off the end of the in-run. Art Menzies, now 81 and living in Penticton, skied the out-run backwards.
"We all acted like we were 12," says a laughing Menzies. "My friend Sandy Martin, he ran two sport ski shops and he had these goon skis we called them. They were cut off, about three feet long. Anyway, Sandy climbed up the to the top of the bleachers and pointed his goon skis down the stairs. He didn't realize how fast he could get going and hit the railing at a pretty good speed. He was in the hospital for a couple of days afterwards."
As the jumpers would glide down the in-run, a bugle would blow and drums would roll - rather dramatic, said one newspaper account.
Although spills were frequent on the opening Thursday night - 24 in 62 jumps - only one was of a serious nature. Jim Brennan of Edmonds, Wash., suffered a badly lacerated face after a tumble on the out-run.
According to the Sun report, Brennan, in trying for too much distance, lost his balance and landed on his face, skidding for 20 feet. They carried him off on a stretcher, his face a bloody mask.
"Oh, he wrecked up his face pretty good," recalls Maki. "You've got to remember it was basically crushed ice we were on and it was sort of sharp. It really cut him up."
In fact, chemicals were injected into the surface to keep it hard.
The spills were blamed on a too-long in-run and poor lighting. Menzies recalls some of the jumpers threatening to quit until changes were made.
While he fell on the landing of the longest jump of the event - 157 feet - Karkinen was the star of the show. He captured two of the four competitions and the aggregate crown. He was presented with a totem pole trophy that, one story said, came apart in his hands.
At a pre-event news conference, Karkinen was asked why he had chosen ski jumping over other popular nordic sports.
"Cross-country is so hard," he said through an interpreter. "You don't have to sweat so much coming down a hill."
Karkinen had spent a couple of months competing at seven events in the U.S. the year before. He and Maki became acquaintances and would often see each other over the years in Europe as Maki continued in the sport as a judge. After the Empire Stadium event, Maki and Karkinen drove back to Michigan together with American competitor Bill Erickson.
"The Vancouver people flew us guys out there, but Willie Erickson, he cashed in his plane ticket - you could do that in those days - and drove out there. I told Jusi Karkinen when we were there he should come and stay with me for a while, so we cashed in our return tickets and we drove back with Willie and he stayed with me for a couple of weeks."
One of the more flamboyant jumpers in the competition was Jacques Charland, described as the Eastern Canadian ace.
Local skier Roger Atkinson, who worked on the crew that prepared the out-run, remembers a pre-event party in which Charland showed "absolutely amazing" ski-flying movies from Europe of guys soaring 300 feet and more.
The Sun also reported that on opening night, Charland bet Karkinen a beer that he could outjump the flyin' Finn on the second jump. Charland fell on the landing of a 138-foot jump, one foot less than Karkinen.
Empire Stadium's flirtation with ski jumping was not unique. A 13-storey jump was constructed in Soldier Field in Chicago in 1954. Portland's PGE Park, Dodger Stadium and the California State Fair at Pomona all were home to exhibition jumping events in the '50s or '60s.
And in Vancouver in the early '50s, smaller temporary jumps were built beside the Kitsilano pool and on Eighth Ave.
But all of those shows off scaffolding-supported jumps were held just also around the time that recreational skiing had begun to supplant ski-jumping as a safer, saner sport. The jumps on Grouse, Seymour and Hollyburn - as did the ones at Princeton, Revelstoke, Leavenworth and Snoqualmie - became the victims of dwindling interest and economics.
"Maintaining the ski jump was a lot of work," says Hunt, who worked on the Hollyburn jumps. "You had to build it, maintain it, tramp pack it. Then it would snow and you'd have to start all over again. Somebody invented the chair lift and gondola and that was the end of it."