Celebrating its 66th anniversary this year, the Four Hills Tournament is a yuletide sports event like no other. The competition dominates the news across Germany and Austria for nine intense days as ski jumpers battle to take home the ultimate Golden Eagle trophy.
The Four Hills Tournament or Vierschanzentournee as it is called in Germany is held in equal regard as the World Championships. In the years following the Second World War German skiers were unable to compete internationally. When the German Ski Association was once again included in the International Ski Federation, a New Years Day jump was arranged. By 1952 details for an Austrian/ German Ski Jump Tour were finalized.
The first New Years tournament was held in Partenkirchen in front of 20,000 spectators in January 1953. As well as Germans and Austrian competitors, Swedes, Slovenians, and Norwegians also took part. In the early years, many political obstacles had to be overcome to keep the competition alive. Visa requirements and lack of snow prior to the invention of fake snow machinery presented difficulties. One well-known anecdote is from 1954 when poor snowfall called for the competition to be cancelled. The team from Austria were not made aware and arrived at Oberstdorf only for the heavens to suddenly open with heavy snowfall. Telegraphs were immediately sent stating that the tournament was back on. The story mimics the ongoing struggle for the competition to flourish in the face of adversity. Flourish it did though and it is now the tour which all skiers dream of competing in.
The jumps are set across the four great peaks of Oberstdorf, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Innsbruck, and Bischofshofen. The Oberstdorf jump is 140 meters high and has a run length of 105.5 meters. The Große Schattenbergschanze is one of the worlds most important ski jumps and has been in constant world cup use since the early seventies. The location is where the first round of the competition starts around the 29th of December each year.
The old 1936 Winter Olympic jump at Garmisch-Partenkirchen was modernized in 2008. The jump is 149 meters high with a run length of 103.5 meters. The venue is located at the foot of Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze which stands at 2,962 meters. It is a stunning place for the 30,000 visitors who attend this leg of the tour to visit.
The Bergisel ski jump is situated close to the center of Innsbruck, the Capital of the Alps. The jump is 130 meters high with a run length of 98 meters.
Bischofshofen plays host to the final stage of the tournament. The Paul-Außerleiner ski jump is named after a skier who died tragically in 1953. At 125 meters high and with a 125-meter run length it is the biggest ski jumping the competition.
Winning at one of the peaks is a great achievement, however, winning at all four jumps is the goal. Only the overall winner takes home the coveted Golden Eagle trophy. It requires perfect jumps every time which is why it is such a revered title. A change in the wind or the weather can make a centimeter's difference to a jump which can change the leaderboard within minutes. The suspense and excitement the competition brings to make the Four Hills Tournament an enormously successful spectator sport. In the region of 30,000 people watch at each stage with a massive proportion of Germans and Austrians watching from home on television. In the UK the event passes most people by.
Jens Weißflog is possibly the most famous German to have ever won the championship with four wins under his belt. Nicknamed as the flea, 'floh', because of his low body weight, Weißflog had taken not only the Four Hills trophy but the World Championship crown too. He is now the familiar face of television ski jumping commentary across Germany.
For Germans The Four Hills Tournament is as much a part of the festive season as Santa Claus and Lebkuchen biscuits.