Meanwhile Daedalus, hating Crete, and his long exile, and filled with a desire to stand on his native soil, was imprisoned by the waves.
‘He may thwart our escape by land or sea’ he said ‘but the sky is surely open to us: we will go that way: Minos rules everything but he does not rule the heavens.’
Sometime in 2003, after the ratings success of the tacky 100 Greatest Britons on BBC, a Polish polling company took a sample of its countrymen, asking for the “most outstanding Pole of the 20th century.”
Who polled first is probably no surprise. John Paul II always had a special hold on his countrymen, and by 2003, the aging pontiff was treated like a living saint. However, Nobel Prize laureates such as Marie Curie and Lech Wałęsa, or Golden Palm winner Andrzej Wajda, all took a backseat to a surprising second-place finisher.
Recognize him? Neither did I.
Adam Małysz, a ski jumper, came in second, behind the Polish Pope.
Once, long ago, I spent 40 hazy hours in Prague visiting a Canadian friend who was on a semester abroad in the Vysoká škola ekonomická v Praze, or the Prague School of Economics.
He was one of my best friends from university (we had met at the student newspaper office while skipping the same class), and because we had not seen each other for four months, we had plenty to say to each other when we sat (or slumped) face to face.
We talked a lot about democracy, emerging economies, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa (and, if we’re being perfectly honest, we talked a lot about Czech girls too). We also talked about Eastern Europe trying to catch-up to Western trends in popular culture, and how awkward some of the efforts seemed to us as western 20-somethings fully immersed in our own version of what’s cool.
Since I speak Polish (and therefore understand Czech) and visit the region frequently, I had a better handle on the strange mix of stadium rock, Depeche Mode, and designer labels that seemed to dominate the dilapidated nightclub in the basement of the student residence where we ended our nights. I also understood (sort of) new Europe’s hip-hop lyrics.
Still, it was my friend who caught sight of something larger.
“There are all these dead heroes here: Hus, Piłsudski… and all the living heroes (Havel, Wałęsa, etc.) are very serious political types. But what about the rest? Not everyone is wired to constantly follow politics, yet these types dominate in popular culture as well.”
“In Canada, we have Wayne Gretzky and the Tragically Hip. In the U.S., there’s Michael Jordan and Eminem. The Czechs have their footballers and hockey players, but the best play abroad so their achievements are distorted… they’re admired from afar. And besides, what’s Jaromir Jagr's cultural significance when compared to Vaclav Havel? Meanwhile, Wayne Gretzky has just as much appeal as any politician in Canada.”
“This place needs more ‘heroes,’ but not the sort of hero who led a political movement or died in some uprising.”
“Well, there’s Małysz…” I offered.
“Małysz!” he bellowed, raising his cup in the air.
“He’s even got that buzzcut-moustache combo all you Eastern-Europeans seem to love…”
So saying he applied his thought to new invention and altered the natural order of things. He laid down lines of feathers, beginning with the smallest, following the shorter with longer ones, so that you might think they had grown like that, on a slant. In that way, long ago, the rustic pan-pipes were graduated, with lengthening reeds. Then he fastened them together with thread at the middle, and bees’-wax at the base, and, when he had arranged them, he flexed each one into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings.
His son, Icarus, stood next to him, and, not realizing that he was handling things that would endanger him, caught laughingly at the down that blew in the passing breeze, and softened the yellow bees’-wax with his thumb, and, in his play, hindered his father’s marvelous work.
If such a thing is possible in a discipline as training-heavy as ski jumping, then Adam Małysz was a prodigy.
Although his father was not a high-level athlete, his uncle was an accomplished ski jumper and later became a well-regarded coach. In 1983, with Poland mired under martial law, they convinced six-year-old Adam to begin training. Despite his small frame, he was clearing 60 meters by age 10.
As his countrymen watched the communist edifice crumble, Małysz kept on jumping. As the system changed, as Wałęsa rose to the presidency and as the country began to suffer through privatizations and shock therapy, Małysz kept on, unencumbered by the crumbling finances that decimated the Polish soccer league, and amateur sport structures across the country.
In 1993, at age 16, he won his first serious tournament and joined the senior national team. Two years later, his Czech coach and his neighbors pooled their money to send him to the World Championships in Thunder Bay, Canada. He entered two competitions (120 and 90 meters) and finished eleventh and tenth.
In 1996, he won his first World Cup event at age 18.
When he had put the last touches to what he had begun, the artificer balanced his own body between the two wings and hovered in the moving air. He instructed the boy as well, saying ‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!’
At the same time as he laid down the rules of flight, he fitted the newly created wings on the boy’s shoulders. While he worked and issued his warnings the ageing man’s cheeks were wet with tears: the father’s hands trembled.
After his breakthrough in 1996, Małysz became an instant celebrity in Poland. Starved for athletic success—actually, any kind of success—Poles embraced this young, shy and quiet sports hero with an unusual fervor.
That he was a ski jumper mattered little—after his initial tournament win in 1996 was followed by two more in 1997, Małysz’s public stature grew and he became a recognizable celebrity. He gained a more prominent place in the country’s headlines; however, he was no longer winning. Because of the perception that he was not fulfilling his promise, the press was often critical without giving him an opportunity to breathe.
In 1998 and 1999 Małysz was on the cusp of something. It would either be sporting success or retirement, which would mean a career as a blacksmith, his acquired trade, in his small town in the south of Poland. In 1998, after finishing 51st at the Nagano Olympics, Małysz almost called it quits. He had a wife and a daughter to support, and middle-of-the-pack ski jumpers do not make enough on the World Cup circuit to retire after four seasons. Yet, at his wife’s urging, Małysz kept going. And late in 2000, something clicked…
He gave a never to be repeated kiss to his son, and lifting upwards on his wings, flew ahead, anxious for his companion, like a bird, leading her fledglings out of a nest above, into the empty air. He urged the boy to follow, and showed him the dangerous art of flying, moving his own wings, and then looking back at his son. Some angler catching fish with a quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough, saw them, perhaps, and stood there amazed, believing them to be gods able to travel the sky.
A World Cup ski jumping season consists of between 20 and 30 events, broken up into between 10 and 15 two-day competitions. During the 2000/2001 season, there were 25 events, so 25 individual days where one jumper can best the others in a day-long competition.
After placing 26th and 11th in his first two attempts, something happened. First, Małysz finished fourth at a December 28, 2000 event in Oberstdorf, in the Bavarian Alps. On January 1, 2001, at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, he finished third. What came next was absolutely incredible.
Małysz won five events in a row.
Then, he finished eighth, but followed with another two wins, one second-place finish, and another win. Then fourth, second, first, first, and first on his way to 11 first-place finishes in 15 events, and his first seasonal World Cup title.
His countrymen went crazy.
(Actual jokes I heard at the bar, pt. 1)
– Why does Małysz need a cell phone?
So that his coach can text him and tell him where to land.
– Małysz is flying through the air next to a stork. All of a sudden, the stork says: “you know, we have been flying side by side for five minutes and you haven’t even introduced yourself…”
“The consistency of his victories is something special for a Pole. For centuries the Poles saw themselves as romantics whose mission was to do something great and magnificent, but at the same time they were drawn only to singular and wholly impractical deeds. Their motto was: pull off a grand, unique and admirable attack and then die.”
– Wojtek Klemm, Artistic Director at Teatr Jeleniogorski
When actors become world famous or when footballers or politicians are forced to leave their privacy behind, there is usually another world that they can enter, another peer group within which they can easily submerge.
There are front-court seats at Laker games, holidays in Dubai and skiing packages at Davos. There are gated communities, the Beckhams and the Cruises, foundations, fund-raisers and black-tie events.
Before Bono there was Prince; before Prince, Michael Jackson, Lennon & McCartney and Elvis Presley.
The individual talents may in fact be unique, but the pedestal itself is timeless. The plaques change, names rise and fall, but there seems to be a well-trodden path, complete with expectations, codes of behavior, pitfalls and rewards. Musicians, footballers, actors—they all follow a pattern, only occasionally straying beyond what is expected of them.
Yet, ski jumping is a specialized and obscure discipline, and Poland in the 1990s was not yet an advanced capitalist society, where individual superstardom was common. There was no well-trodden path for ski jumpers. There was no well-trodden path for Polish superstar athletes either.
Instead, Małysz was (and remains) alone, floating through the air like his peers, but landing somewhere entirely different.
Since his run in 2001, Małysz won three more seasonal World Cup titles (2002, 2003, and 2007). He became the second-most decorated ski jumper of all time after Finland’s Matti Nykänen, who won 46 World Cup events to Małysz’s 38. He also became Poland’s first post-Communist sports icon, with 14 million of his countrymen (out of 38 million) tuning in to see him jump in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
(Małysz with Poland's President, Lech Kaczynski and his wife.)
Małyszomania means that his every training run is watched by a cadre of reporters, and that he and his wife have no privacy so long as he is in his home country. Every move is watched by eager sportscasters, and every word makes the sports portion of the evening news.
His small frame and slender moustache are everywhere—cardboard cutouts in supermarkets, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and billboards. That’s one of the interesting side stories of Adam Małysz—like Will Farrell’s fictional Ricky Bobby, he is willing to shill for everyone.
(Actual jokes I heard at the bar, pt. 2)
– Why does Małysz stay in the air for so long?
Because his sponsors demand that he is airborne long enough for everyone to read all the ads that they’ve pasted onto him.
– Why were Małysz and his family never invited to appear on Big Brother?
Because all the cameras watch them 24/7 anyway…
And now Samos, sacred to Juno, lay ahead to the left (Delos and Paros were behind them), Lebinthos, and Calymne, rich in honey, to the right, when the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher.
“Did you hear? Hannu Lepistoe is back!”
“What’s Hannu Lepistoe?” I ask mischievously, knowing that somehow I am committing a major blunder.
“Not what,” answers my aunt with an incredulous grin, “but who.”
“He is Małysz’s coach from Finland, and he’s the best. Last year, they threw him out as the coach, but after Małysz had all his bad results, he left his new coach and asked Lepistoe to help him again.
“If anyone can help him, maybe Hannu can. But maybe it’s too late now…”
After winning the World Cup seasonal title in 2001, 2002 and 2003, Adam Małysz began to slow down. Since this was ski jumping, no one knew whether this was a natural progression or not, and all of Poland began to wonder what was wrong with its favorite son.
Some theorized that he had made too much money or that he was too distracted by his celebrity. Others thought that perhaps three years at the very top was as much as he was capable of, and that his career was simply winding down in a natural way.
Then, in 2006, Małysz began winning again. Training with a new coach (the aforementioned Lepistoe), Małysz strung together six wins in seven tournaments to close out the 2007 season, and to win his fourth overall title to the delight of his fans.
If he were an American baseball player, fans would have likely attributed this late career resurgence to steroids. But this is Poland, and such cynicism stands no chance when Adam Małysz is involved. Instead, the fans expect the successes to last forever, expecting Małysz to keep winning, burdening him with expectations, like a Hollywood actress, that he stay forever young.
His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him.
Since his 2007 triumph, the cameras have been on Małysz non-stop. In early 2008, the Polish Ski Federation fired his Finnish coach in mid-season. In 2009, the AUDI suspended his sponsorship due to the economic crisis, and the media reported that Małysz lost his car.
In the meantime, Poland’s sporting press has focused on the one title missing from Małysz’s trophy case, an Olympic gold medal, and has began to report on the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as the next mountain to climb.
Meanwhile, Małysz has been faltering on the slope, and now looks visibly exhausted.
“For some reason my form has just vanished,” he said after withdrawing from the prestigious Four Hills Tournament in early 2009, before, in a desperate move, he packed up, went to Finland, and asked Lepistoe to work with him again.
The unhappy father, now no longer a father, shouted ‘Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?’ ‘Icarus’ he called again. Then he caught sight of the feathers on the waves, and cursed his inventions. He laid the body to rest, in a tomb, and the island was named Icaria after his buried child.
When my grandmother saw an evening newscast reporting on Małysz’s latest troubles, she looked visibly upset.
“My God, they need to leave the poor man alone,” she told me as she sipped her tea. “Look at him, he’s so skinny, and his eyes are all sunken in.”
I nodded in agreement, but ever the contrarian, I could not help but utter: “that’s the price of fame, Grandma.”
“Maybe so,” she said. “But he should be able to retire now. Your grandfather thinks that it’s time for him to open a bar. But who would go to his bar now? He looks like he has tuberculosis!”
My grandfather, not prone to exaggeration, had the last word that evening.
“Everyone in Poland will have a beer with him,” he replied. “I just wonder if his liver could handle it…”