Ski jumping may be popular in Japan and Norway, but it's pretty rare when the sport grabs headlines in the United States. That's just what happened in 1998, when the hearts of even the most casual Olympics watchers were captured by Japanese jumper Masahiko "Happy" Harada.
Four years earlier at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, the Japanese team held a seemingly insurmountable lead in the large hill (120-meter) ski jumping event with just one jump remaining.
That jump belonged to Harada, the diminutive but wind-resistant anchor of the squad. In his first jump, Harada had sailed 122 meters. The second time around, he needed only about 110 meters to clinch the gold for Japan.
Maybe the wind hit at the wrong time, maybe the pressure got to him, or maybe he simply had a bad jump. But when Harada landed, he was just 97.5 meters from the ramp. It was the worst jump of anyone on the top eight teams, and it gave Germany the gold medal and left Japan with the silver.
Harada said afterwards, "In the past, a well-raised Japanese would have to commit hari-kari after such a mistake. Today nobody expects that of us."
It was Harada's affable demeanor and ubiquitous smile that earned him his nickname and made him a fan favorite inside and outside of his native Japan. And it was those qualities that helped keep him a fan favorite even after costing his country the gold.
After winning numerous world cup events and a world championship, Harada returned to the Olympics four years later—this time in front of his home country at Nagano. The Games began on a sour note, however.
In the normal hill competition, he was in first place after his first jump. Needing merely a mediocre jump on his second attempt, Harada faltered once again, pushing him back to fifth. He responded days later with a bronze in the large hill event, but it was the team competition that had everyone's attention.
Before the event, Yushiro Yagi, the head delegate for the Japanese Olympic team, proclaimed, "We will win. We must win."
Well, at least there was no pressure.
As luck would have it, on Harada's first jump the wind and snow picked up just as he made his way down the ramp. His woeful 79.5-meter jump took his team from first place down to fourth, and Japanese fans were crying, "Not again!"
As he readied himself for his second attempt, he knew what was on the line. He sped down the ramp. He took off. And he landed 137 meters away, tying the world mark and all but insuring the gold for Japan. Final jumper Kazuyoshi Funaki closed out the event with a leap of 125 meters, clinching the gold for Japan.
Redemption was sweet for Harada. "I did it! I did it!" he shouted, with his trademark grin from ear to ear.
Though Harada, now retired from professional sports, isn't competing in the 2010 Games in Vancouver, he will surely be watching the Japanese ski-jumping team fight for the gold.