Brilliant, but deeply flawed: Finnish ski jump legend Matti Nykänen dead at 55

The athlete won a world-beating string of medals as a young man; but also left a legacy of alcoholism, crime and violence behind him.

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File picture of Matti Nykänen at the height of his career / Credit: Urheilu Museo

Finnish ski jump legend, and four time Olympic champion Matti Nykänen is dead at age 55.

His wife reported that he passed away in the early hours of Monday morning, although the cause of death is not known at this time.

Nykänen is widely considered one of the finest ski jump athletes of all time, winning five Winter Olympic medals – one gold and a silver at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics; and three more golds four years later in Calgary.

He won nine World Championship medals including five golds during his career from 1981 to 1989; and notched up 46 World Cup competition wins, including the overall title four times. He also claimed 22 Finnish championship medals on his way to becoming the only ski jumper to win all five of the sport’s biggest events.

Troubled life after sporting success

Nykänen’s life away from the ski jump was far from golden however.

Troubled by alcoholism, and plagued with legal run-ins that saw him serve prison time for spousal abuse and for violent assaults, Nykänen had trouble coping with fame and life after sports.

He spent more than two years behind bars after stabbing a friend in 2004; and another 16 months for assaulting his wife in 2009.

His alcoholism, lurid private life and years of criminality became constant fodder for Finnish tabloids as the former golden boy of the ski jumping world was repeatedly arrested on accusations of assault, abusing his partner by strangling her, and manslaughter – although the latter charge was dropped due to insufficient evidence.

Nykänen found moderate success as a pop singer and released three albums, and performed as recently as Friday to an enthusiastic small crowd at a Helsinki restaurant.

Tributes for Nykänen

In Matti Nykänen’s home town of Jyväskylä, where there is a ski jump bearing his name, officials say they will arrange a minute of silence in the athlete’s memory today.

“Matti Nykänen has died. The city of Jyväskylä wants to respect Nykänen’s memory by organizing a moment of remembrance today at 16.30 at all sports facilities” says city’s official Twitter account.

Tributes also came on social media for the ski jumper’s career and life.

Minister for European Affairs, Culture and Sport Sampo Terho (Blue) writes that Nykänen “was undoubtedly one of the most prominent Finnish athletes”.

“Rest In Peace Matti Nykänen, the greatest ski jumper of all time” said actor Jasper Pääkkönen on Twitter. Pääkkönen played Nykänen in a 2006 biopic which focused on his troubled life beyond the ski jumping career.

Former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb writes: “sad to hear that one of greatest ski-jumpers of all time, Matti Nykänen, has passed away at the age of 55. A legend in so many ways. He will always have a special place in the hearts of winter sports fans around the world”.

Sports agent Aleksi Valavuori, a personal friend of Nykänen’s, wrote “my deepest condolences (…) Fly Matti, fly”.

In recent years Nykänen coped with a diagnosis of diabetes, and vowed to turn his life around. In 2015 his social rehabilitation appeared complete as he was invited for the first time to celebrate Finnish Independence Day at the Presidential Palace.

Matti Nykänen is survived by his current wife and three children.