How is progress defined by someone who has been a leading figure in ski jumping for decades? Toni Innauer talks about the ethical and moral boundaries of progress – and what sport tells us about human development all the same.

What does progress mean for you?

Opinions can differ as to whether a development represents progress or not. In professional sport, the next outstanding performance does not always constitute progress. It also depends on the wider impact. Sportspeople go to great lengths to go faster, further and higher. But the overall dimension has to be right, too.

In professional sport, the next outstanding performance does not always constitute progress. It also depends on the wider impact.

What exactly does that mean?

In ideal conditions, it might well be possible to ski jump over 300 metres, but that would automatically be considerably more dangerous. Ski jumping is an interesting thought experiment, because those distances can be achieved in theory – it just requires the hills to be made even bigger than they are now. But this would go hand in hand with a perilous increase in speed and the forces to which jumpers are exposed. The wind effect would also be far more dramatic. Even now, crashes are unavoidable and can even be life-threatening – see the examples of Thomas Morgenstern and Daniel-André Tande. The discussion on this issue is ongoing, including with regard to women’s ski jumping.

You recently stated your opinion on this matter publicly. What is the debate all about?

Women’s ski jumping is developing extremely well. Female jumpers are recording distances in excess of 130 metres, and they are competing at the Winter Olympics and achieving impressive performances there. Some people are now saying that women should be allowed to compete in ski flying. {Editor’s note: Hills of 185 metres and above are classified as ski flying hills. The current world record is 253.5 metres.} The argument is that women who want to take part should not be prevented or forbidden from doing so. As far as I am concerned, however, the discussion surrounding women’s ski flying is not a gender debate, but an ethical and moral one. And that is where I am extremely sceptical. Why? Women need even more speed than their male colleagues to jump from these huge hills. This means they are subject to even greater impact energy if they crash. Women’s bodies have a lower percentage of muscle and are specifically trained to be as light as possible for the respective sport. Ski flying is already extremely dangerous for men, and we could exceed a critical level if women are allowed to compete.

So it is not a question of skill?

I have no doubt that women are capable of jumping 250 metres. Just like the best male jumpers, female jumpers will occasionally crash. That is why we should take care now, instead of only reacting after something tragic happens. The debate needs to take the worst case into consideration. As an older man and someone who has experienced a severe crash and survived to tell the tale, I feel like I am entitled to have my say.

Is ski jumping an example of a sport where the differences between men and women are no longer visible for spectators?

Ski jumping is one of the few sports where women’s performance is very close to that of their male counterparts. In addition to take-off power, the determining factors include motor performance and physique. In mixed competitions, women take a slightly longer run-up and achieve similar scores.

Let’s talk about the barriers in your sport. Given the risks involved, is striving for ever greater distances actually desirable in the first place?

The boundaries of acceptability are built on a societal consensus. Some people enjoy watching crashes – legendary Austrian singer Rainhard Fendrich summed up this cynical mindset in his song “Es lebe der Sport”. As far as I am concerned, however, crashes are absolutely horrible to watch. Ultimately, the question of boundaries is one that must be answered by the legal, medical and sporting committees in the major associations. But there are commercial boundaries too. For example, endlessly waiting for the ideal wind conditions would ruin the excitement of a competition. No one would watch an event like that on TV or in person. Generally speaking, commercial considerations should not overshadow the fact that sport serves as a role model for our society. Top sport needs to be more aware of its importance as a model for competition and carefully controlled rivalry in accordance with fair rules.

Where innovation is concerned, would it not be logical to provide every jumper with the same materials?

Ski jumping is an interesting sport in this respect, because we have been trying for decades to define rules on materials that are affordable for as many countries as possible. Reasonably affordable materials and easily comprehensible rules help to give the sport a broader appeal so that it is not constantly dominated by the richest nations. These rules are always being rewritten as resourceful athletes and coaches seek out loopholes and grey areas in order to gain an advantage. The committees address these developments, and the rules are modified accordingly. Like the aforementioned ethical and moral questions, this is ultimately a question of attitude. How self-reflective can a sport be?

Ski flying is already extremely dangerous for men, and we could exceed a critical level if women are allowed to compete.

What does attitude mean for you in this respect?

What matters to me is that I scrutinise my own actions. That is something that often goes unfulfilled in professional sport, because the desire for immediate success takes priority. Coaches sign short-term contracts and seek to achieve success quickly. This is why it is so important for sporting directors and presidents to be committed to managing and structuring their sport in a healthy and intelligent manner.

No unregulated progress, then?

I would consider it progress if people stopped defining themselves only by winning or being stronger. Sports culture is not about success at any price, but about taking a long-term perspective and developing rules that work for everyone. We saw an example of this in ski jumping with the introduction of BMI (editor’s note: body mass index). Although we knew that low weight was a significant risk factor to athletes in our sport, it was difficult to implement this in the form of corresponding policies. A number of countries felt that they were surrendering a competitive advantage. But we were the only sport in the world with the ability to introduce a weight limit. As far as I am concerned, creating rules that maintain the excitement of the sport while also protecting athletes constitutes real progress.

Speaking of sport and politics. How political is sport, and ski jumping in particular?

On the one hand, there are some political aspects to sport – the award of world championships, presidential elections, and rules and regulations. It is a bit like parliamentarianism on a small scale, in that it reflects the wider world of politics and has a lot of the familiar features of day-today political life. Then there is the extent to which sport can be politicised, even if this is prohibited by the rules. After all, Pierre de Coubertin’s fundamental principle was that sport should be an apolitical arena. Of course, things are different in reality. Sport has been used as a political tool for decades. Most sportspeople try to remain neutral as far as possible. For example, if they train for four years to go to the Winter Olympics in China only to have to spend their time there engaging in activism too, they would soon run out of energy. On the other hand, they are powerless to prevent themselves and their successes from being exploited by their regimes.

Is sport an effective medium for sanctions, e.g. in the way that Russian sportspeople have been excluded from international competitions in response to the war in Ukraine? {Editor’s note: This interview took place on 11 March 2022}

I see this as the right decision, even if it is a very tough one for the sportspeople concerned. The international community and the sporting world need to show the Russians that violations of international law have consequences, and that things cannot continue as normal when a regime breaks the most fundamental of rules.

To conclude by returning to the topic of progress: What are the positive aspects of progress in ski jumping as far as you are concerned?

The progress made by the individual athletes. The way they start out on an incredible journey of learning as young people, developing skills and learning to master disciplines that possibly even used to cause them fear. This is a fine example of just how much potential for development there is inside every person. The milestones in ski jumping are dramatic. When you take to the Bergisel hill and pull off a 130-metre jump for the first time, it goes right through you. Sport shows the kind of personal progress that can be achieved through dedication, determination and temporary sacrifice. The invention of the V-style3 by the Swedish jumper Jan Boklöv represented a special kind of progress. As well as catapulting the sport into entirely new dimensions of performance, it had the fortunate side-effect of making ski jumping and sky flying considerably safer. {Editor’s note: The V-style allows jumpers to achieve longer distances at much lower speeds.}

Are there any more aspects of progress that are important to you?

When you become a father and a grandfather, you start to look at the sport from that perspective, and not only in terms of performance. With all the developments happening now, I find myself wondering: “Would I want my daughter or my grandchildren to be doing that?” You tend to come to a different conclusion when you have a personal interest than when you are sitting around a table and making decisions that only affect others.

The interview was conducted by Anna Schmeikal and Joachim Kurz.

Toni Innauer (64) is a former ski jumper, coach and official. His most notable achievements include his world record jumps in the 1970s and a gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics. After an injury brought his ski jumping career to a premature end later that year, he studied psychology/philosophy and sport and later began a successful career as head coach of the Austrian national ski jumping team and the Nordic Director of the Austrian Ski Federation. He currently works as a consultant, a speaker, and an expert on TV station ZDF.