Jumping after Wirkola

Bjørn Wirkola, one of Norway's most famous sportsmen and one of the world's greatest ski jumpers, is from Alta. "Jumping after Wirkola" is one of the most used expressions taken from the world of sport. It means that it's a hard act to follow an exceptionally gifted predecessor.

Bjørn Wirkola.
Bjørn Wirkola. Photo given to the museum by Lillian Wirkola Heitmann.

Wirkola won the ski jumping competition in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on New Year's Day and was overall winner of the German-Austrian four-hills tournament (4 competitions) in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The New Year's Day competition is not only an event for people in Europe and Asia. On this day millions of viewers from all over the world watch the New Year's Concert from Vienna, and afterwards the televised broadcast from Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Wirkola was Norwegian Champion in ski jumping and the Nordic combined event 11 times and double World Champion in the jumping competition in 1966. He also played for Rosenborg, Norway's best football team the last 50 years. What is perhaps less well known is that he was part of the team when Rosenborg first won "The Double" in 1971 under the management of Nils Arne Eggen. The same year he was awarded Norway's highest sports prize, Egebergs Ærespris, a prize which is very rarely awarded and only to the few who have made outstanding achievements in several sports disciplines.

In the early days of television in the 1960s Wirkola brought much good cheer and pride on the first day of the year, not only in Alta, but in all Norwegian homes. Wirkola was a natural TV star: he was good looking, he was pleasant and witty, and he was a ski jumper par excellence.

The start of Alta's flourishing sports life

"When I was a boy we had skiing competitions every single Sunday with up to 60-70 competitors." (Quotation from Bjørn Wirkola in conversation with sports commentator Bjørge Lillelien in 1969).

In the Alta district the first Nordic combined competition was held 1907, and cross country and jumping events in 1909. Alta sports club (Alta IF), Wirkola's home team, was founded  in 1927 with the name "Elvebakken Idrettslag."  In the 1950s and 60s there were jumping hills all over Alta. Alta arranged the regional championship for Northern Norway in 1951, 1954 and 1957. In the 1950s there were participants from the whole of Scandinavia in the annual Alta competition. They were watched by thousands of spectators.

Aspiring young sportsmen had someone they could look up to. Outdoor sports – skiing, ice skating, football – were the major sports in Norway. The youngsters were glued to the wireless noting down the fortunes and misfortunes of their heroes. There wasn't much winter work to be had in Alta in the 1950s. An important leisure activity was cross-country skiing and ski jumping. Jumpers from the ages of 12 up to 30 would often be jumping on the same hill. Like his heroes before him, Wirkola took part in both ski jumping and the Nordic combined.

Wirkola and his family: Polar huntsmen, farmers and sportsmen

Wirkola's great grandfather, Karl Johan Wirkola, had Finnish parents. He went on polar hunts for fifty three seasons up until his seventieth year. Bjørn's father, "Kalle" Wirkola, had a farm and was a carpenter and slate worker. He had a considerable jumping and combined career. After retiring from active sport he was a trainer for many years for a lot of young hopefuls, including Finnish ski jumpers. Co-operation across northern Scandinavia was important for the development of winter sports in the region.

Bjørn was born on August 4th 1943, number four of five children.

Straight home from school and then out skiing

The dark time of the year, when the sun never rose above the horizon, meant that Wirkola had to jump by the light of the Northern Lights or for a couple of hours in the middle of the day before darkness fell. At the end of the 1950s floodlighting was installed on the jumping hills of Raipas and Rishaug.

The Alta ski jump was built "on the sunny side" in 1954. As a ten-year-old Wirkola competed in his first event. He was so frightened that he hardly dared to look down from the top of the hill. But, scared stiff though he was, he took second place.

The competitors had to prepare the hill themselves even when it was a championship event. Along with other elite ski jumpers, Wirkola carried up sacks of snow when there was a championship there in 1968.

The Norwegian championship and Holmenkollen: Wirkola's breakthrough and his move to Trondheim

According to Wirkola his breakthrough came at the Northern Norwegian competition in Mo i Rana in 1962. He finished second, beaten only by world champion Toralf Engan. The same year, in the Norwegian junior championships, he was number 3 in the ski jumping event and number 1 in the Nordic combined. "Bjørn Wirkola from Alta is one of the finest talents  I can ever remember seeing." (Quotation from the radio reporter Bjørge Lillelien to the newspaper Finnmark Dagblad after the Norwegian junior championships in 1962).

Wirkola moved to Trondheim in 1962, but carried on competing in championships as a member of Alta Sports Club, Alta IF. Since then he has lived in Trøndelag. After his third place in the Holmenkollen ski jumping competition in 1964, he decided to concentrate on ski jumping.

Wirkola - wholesale collector of trophies and  cups

In 1965 Wirkola won his first Norwegian championship gold as a senior. Altogether he took 8 golds. His last one was in 1971. In addition he won 3 junior championship golds, 2 in the combined event and 1 in the specialised ski jumping event. In all, he took 5 "His Majesty the King's Cups."

Double world champion in Oslo 1966 – Wirkola becomes historic

In the small hill world championship in Midstubakken he opened with a hill record of 79.5 metres and a perfect landing. Wirkola, with start number 48, won the competition ahead of East German Dieter Neuendorf and Finland’s Veikko Kankkonen.

The big hill at Holmenkollen was a repeat performance. Wirkola was in his prime, smiled happily before setting out on the inrun and had a huge jump in the prevailing foggy conditions. His hardest rival, Dieter Neuendorf, had famously said beforehand: "It won’t be easy to jump after Wirkola." This may be the origin of the most used expression in Norwegian taken from the world of sport. It means that it is difficult to follow (jump) after an exceptionally gifted rival.

The Olympic Games – no success

His participation in three Olympic Games (1964, 1968, 1972) was far from successful. A fourth place in the little hill was his best result. But his victory in the Test Olympics in Grenoble in 1967 was a remarkable achievement after he had just returned from a tiring 4-week tour around USA.

The German-Austrian ski jumping week and the New Year's Day competition

As the only one in history, Bjørn Wirkola won the German-Austrian ski jumping week three years in a row. On New Year's Day millions of people around the world watched the TV coverage of the competition in Garmisch–Partenkirchen in Bavaria. The New Year's Day competition is the second of the four events that make up the "Four Hills Tournament." The first is also in Germany, in Oberstdorf, and the last two are in Austria - in Innsbruck and Bischofshofen. Along with the Olympics and the World Championships, "The Four-Hills trophy" is regarded as the most prestigious that a jumper can win.

The first time that Wirkola took part in the tournament in 1964/65 he was number 2 on aggregate after his fellow Norwegian, Torgeir Brantzæg. Wirkola won the competition in Bischofshofen, was number 2 in Innsbruck and number 3 in Oberstdorf.

In 1966 he was number 3 on aggregate. Bjørn Wirkola won the German-Austrian "Four Hills Tournament" in 1967, 1968 and 1969. In 1967 and 1968 he won 3 of the 4 individual events that make up the "Four Hills Tournament."

In Wirkola's time there were no cash prizes. Wirkola got 65 kroner ($10) per day for lost earnings. Today, the overall winner can get 1 million kroner in cash prize. 

The "Norwegian" decade in the German/Austrian jump week

From 1965 to 1970 Wirkola never finished worse than number 3 in the "Four Hills Tournament." His last victory was in Bischofhofen in January 1972. Wirkola and Jens Weissflog from the DDR both have 10 individual victories each, more than any other ski jumper.

Norwegians won 6 of 10 of the four-hills weeks

Ingolf Mork won 3 of the 4 individual competitions in 1971 and was overall winner in 1972. That brought to an end a remarkable decade for Norwegian ski jumpers which had begun with Toralf Engan's victory in 1962. Thirty-two years were to pass before the next Norwegian won on aggregate, Espen Bredesen in 1994.

Between 1953 and 2019 jumpers from Germany, Austria and Finland have won the tournament 16 times each. Norway has had 10 victories. Jumpers from Poland have won three times. Jumpers from Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Japan have won two times each. Russia /Soviet Union has one overall victory.

Ski flying and other international competitions

The ski flying hill at Kulm, Austria, 1964: Wikola is waiting tensely at the top of the hill. The spectators at the bottom of the hill look like little dots from up there. Wirkola jumps – 112 kph at the take-off point and 135 kph at the landing point. His third jump – a fantastic 144 metres! But then something went terribly wrong: Wirkola fell, lost both skis and tumbled round and round. Fortunately, no damage done! Back to the top and a new attempt – 134 metres was his longest standing jump.

Beautiful long jumps

On 18th March 1966 Wirkola excels with a fantastic jump which the judges awarded the maximum 20 style points: 146 metres. He wins the ski flying competition on the giant hill in Vikersund with a longest jump of 150 metres. Wirkola was the first person in the world to jump more than 160 metres. He won the ski flying competition in Planica in 1969 with a new world record of 162 metres.

Football and Rosenborg

When Wirkola gradually reduced his ski jumping after the 1970 world championship he quickly earned a place in Rosenborg's football squad. He played in the cup final for Rosenborg in 1971, 1972 and 1973. He was on the team when it was both league and cup champion in 1971, the first year that Nils Arne Eggen was coach and the first year Rosenborg won "The Double." He was also league champion for Rosenborg in the 1973 season.


This is how Wirkola jumped: (Quote from the radio reporter Bjørge Lillelien).

"Here he comes now – leaps from the take-off point - perfect aerodynamic style and ski alignment – rock-steady landing – a demonstration of what ski jumping should look like. Come on Alta! Come on Finnmark!"

"A strange mixture of a hardened sportsman, perfectionist, joker, and a sportsman who is always pleased to see the progress of others."

He won a number of prizes for his phenomenal sporting achievements, including:

- Olav's statuette, 1966

- Sports journalists statuette, 1967 (later renamed "Sportsman of the year's statuette")

- Sondre Norheims Ærespris, 1969

- Egebergs Ærespris, 1971

- "Sportsman of the century in Finnmark," 2000

- Alta Municipality's Culture Prize, 2003

Until 2007 Wirkola was the only person from Alta to become world champion in any field of sport. In 2007 Ailo Gaup became world champion in motor cycling FMX Freestyle. In 2015 the cross-country skier, Finn Hågen Krogh, was world champion in the freestyle sprint and, in 2017, the 4x10 km relay.

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Lillelien,B. (1969) Bjørn Wirkola - Knall og fall. Oslo: Cappelens forlag. Reprinted in 2005 by Faguttrykk Alta