Matti Nykänen is no longer among us. The best and bravest ski jumper the world has known died last night at the age of 55, as confirmed by Finnish newspapers and television from early morning.
The death of Matti deprives Finland of one of its last heroes.
Yes, I know what you are thinking right now, but Matti was much more than the whole set of scandalous headlines, unrelated to his career as an athlete, which generated after his retirement.
Matti was the last giant of Finnish sports, one of those individuals that emerge once or twice every century (Paavo Nurmi could be the only comparable) and who carry the burden of representing their nation. A responsibility not chosen and for which not everyone is ready.
I remember perfectly the first time I saw him when I was a child on the old black-and-white television that we had at home. It was the Olympic Games in Sarajevo and I would not be ten years old when he won the Gold Medal in the large hill discipline.
I remember the appearance of the young Matti raising his arms to celebrate his triumph: thin, small, with a clean smile, so different from the man hardened by the bad life we met later.
We all were very different then. In fact, as Gabriel García Márquez wrote, the whole world was so young that some things did not even have a name yet and to refer to them we had to point them out with the finger.
And that day there was the world, pointing to a 21-year-old young Matti Nykänen who had just flown 116 meters to fill with pride a small country. So small and so far that in my little town in northern Spain few were right to place on a map.
Matti was also one of the last great heroes of a vanished world, made up of countries whose names today seem exotic but whose mere mention scared the elders of our generation.
One cannot be good at everything he does. However, few people can say that at least they were the best in one thing. Matti was, number one
He won his first Olympic gold medal in the former Yugoslavia, in a city that years later would be besieged and destroyed to the ground during the cruel war that ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s.
To succeed in Sarajevo, Matti had to defeat two other first-class jumpers, Jens Weißflog and Pavel Ploc, from East Germany and Czechoslovakia, both countries also disappeared. In later competitions, he also managed to win to some of the best jumpers of the Soviet Union, the empire that sank in 1991 when the old twentieth-century order collapsed.
Until then, between 1981 and 1991 Matti Nykänen won four gold and one silver Olympic medals, nine World Championship medals and 22 Finnish Championship medals, 14 of gold. None of that would have been possible without his peculiar character and the innocent bravery that allowed him to despise fear and jump up to where others did not dare.
In the following years, we also knew about the sinking of Matti. After his retirement, he was in the news many times because of his problems with alcohol, his successive marital failures, his violent behaviour that took him twice to jail, his financial troubles and his bizarre career as a singer and stripper.
One cannot be good at everything he does. However, few people can say that at least they were the best in one thing. Matti was, number one. That is why in the moment of his last great jump, while he flies towards eternity, he deserves to be remembered with respect, pride and admiration by the small country he contributed to make bigger.