Ski jumping: 40,000 to see Four Hills take leap of faith

Berlin (AFP) –


Around 40,000 people will shiver in the snow of Oberstdorf on Saturday, straining necks and eyes as ski jumping's prestigious Four Hills gets underway with their own German Alpine stars expected to sweep to victory.

The sport's blue riband event, a Christmas and New Year fixture of the ski jumping calendar since 1953, takes on extra significance this year with the 2018 Winter Olympics just six weeks away.

Germany's Richard Freitag is the favourite having taken the lead in the overall World Cup competition.

He will be keen to lay down a marker on Saturday at his home venue before the Four Hills moves to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and then into Austria at Innsbruck and Bischofshofen.

Freitag, the leader of the German 'Eagles', has won three of the last five World Cup outings with two second places.

"I already know that he is capable of jumping well, but it's that he does it so regularly that gives us a huge satisfaction," said Werner Schuster, the coach of the German team.

Freitag, 26, will be desperate to make his mark with the Four Hills and an Olympic title to add to his only international triumph so far, the 2015 world championship.

At just 22, teammate Andreas Wellinger is the team's great hope for the future and is currently second in the World Cup standings.

He already has two gold medals from the team event at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi on the big hill followed by another triumph in the mixed team event at this year's world championships in Finland.

The leading threat to a German sweep of the Four Hills title is Poland's Kamil Stoch.

The 30-year-old is the defending champion and captured double Olympic gold on the big and normal hills at Sochi and world titles in 2013 and 2017.

After a slump in form in 2015 and 2016, Stoch attributes his rejuvenation this year to the arrival of new national coach Stefan Hoerngacher of Austria.

"We now have an excellent team spirit, each athlete believes in him," said Stoch.

"Stefan has changed some small things in my momentum and training but it is especially the psychological approach that is different with him."

Austria will rely on 24-year-old Stefan Kraft to shatter German and Polish hopes.

Kraft was Four Hills champion in 2015 and has been an individual gold medallist at the last two world championships.

However, an Olympic medal has eluded him.

"Obviously, that is my big objective this winter," said Kraft.

German coach Schuster, himself an Austrian native, is a fan of his compatriot.

"Stefan Kraft has a killer instinct even if one has to use this phrase carefully," said Schuster.

"He has the serenity of mind that allows him to make the right decision at the right time and it is because of this that he has already won so many medals."

Four Hills programme:

Dec 30: Oberstdorf (Germany), Jan 01: Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany), Jan 04: Innsbruck (Austria), Jan 06: Bischofshofen (Austria)

Last 10 champions:

2016/17: Kamil Stoch (POL), 2015/16: Peter Prevc (SLO), 2014/15: Stefan Kraft (AUT), 2013/14: Thomas Diethart (AUT), 2012/13: Gregor Schlierenzauer (AUT), 2011/12: Gregor Schlierenzauer (AUT), 2010/11: Thomas Morgenstern (AUT), 2009/10: Andreas Kofler (AUT), 2008/09: Wolfgang Loitzl (AUT), 2007/08: Janne Ahonen (FIN)