Olympics-Ski jumping-'Snow Ruyi' the star of the show for now
By Philip O'Connor
ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) - An ever-present in Olympic competition since the 1924 Games in Chamonix, ski jumping has seen a raft of changes over the years, but it has arguably never had a more spectacular venue than the "Snow Ruyi" facility purpose-built for the Beijing Games.
Going by the altogether more staid title of the National Ski Jumping Centre, it has been nicknamed the "Snow Ruyi" after a form of Chinese sceptre which is reflected in its magnificent architectural design.
The structure, featuring a normal and a large hill, is topped by a flying saucer-like cantilevered building offering 360-degree views, and covers 650,000 square metres.
Deep inside the closed loop in which the Beijing Games are being staged, the only observers on hand for Thursday's training were the volunteers as the first athletes made their leaps from the normal hill with the mercury hovering at a freezing -14 C.
American Anna Hoffmann got proceedings underway as the clock ticked a few seconds past 5 P.M. local time, hurtling along the 168-metre track before catapulting into the air and a drop of over 13m.
The Wisconsin native landed a good bit below the bright red Beijing 2022 logo that was painted on the snow earlier in the afternoon. She was followed by 39 athletes from 16 countries, each granted a maximum of three practice jumps
As the women finished, the local crew tested a spectacular light show with a blinding variety of strobes, spotlights and lasers illuminating the towering hills.
Starting in reverse order based on their ranking, Ukrainian Anton Korchuk was first out for the men, but all eyes were on the 46th athlete down the slope - Poland's reigning large hill Olympic champion Kamil Stoch.
The 34-year-old showed no signs of being hampered by a recent freak ankle injury and promptly landed the longest jump of the first session at 102 metres.
Rivals Ryoyu Kobayashi of Japan and Germany's Karl Geiger effortlessly landed equally impressive jumps, but it was hard to ignore the possibility that they were holding back ahead of Saturday, when competition begins.
For now the ultra-modern Snow Ruyi is the star of the show, but the likes of Stoch and Geiger will overshadow it as soon as the medals are up for grabs.
(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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