OLYMPIC WISH LIST: Bring Back the Barrel Jump

Shattered pelvis here we come!

by Leslie Anthony

In this Olympic season I’d like to talk a bit about a pure, backyard-bred, gauntlet-throwing event that many people of my generation were convinced was once in the Winter Games. It wasn’t, but given some of the arcane, deadbeat events of today’s Olympiads it should have been: the barrel jump.

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A clip of barrel jumping was long-featured on the trailer to ABC’s infamous Wide World of Sports. In it, dude skates up to a row of barrels at mach speed, leaps feet forward like a broad-jumping track star, hits the last barrel with his tailbone, shatters his pelvis. In the pantheon of “agony of defeat” it was right up there with the upside-down guy wiping the hay bales off the side of a ski jump. Still, since it was the kind of thing you could imagine doing with your buddies—or at least your Norwegian buddies—it seemed Olympic in scope. It wasn’t, but not for lack of trying.

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Long jumping on skates was an informal sport in nineteenth-century Holland. It grew out of obstacle races in which speed skaters jumped fences, walls, and man-made barriers. During the 1920s and ’30s, barrels were often placed to mark the boundaries of a course. Skaters amused themselves and spectators before and after races by laying the barrels on their sides and jumping them.

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Eventually it was formalized: the skater circles the rink a few times picking up speed; at about 50 kph, the athlete tries to leap a batch of fiberglass (formerly wood) barrels, laid side by side by side on the ice. American speed-skater Edmund Lamy set the first known record with a jump of 27’ 8”, at Saranac Lake, New York, in 1925, and the distance remained a record for more than a quarter-century. Olympic gold-medal speed skater Irving Jaffee made his mark by organizing the first tournament, at Grossinger’s Country Club in the Catskills, in 1951. Jaffee also standardized barrel size at 16” wide and 30” long. Terrance Brown set a new record by jumping 15 barrels (28’ 3”), at the second World Championships at Grossinger’s in 1952. The present record of 18 barrels (29’ 5”) was set by Yvon Jolin of Canada on January 25, 1981. The woman’s record was set in Lasalle, Quebec, by Marie Josee Houle who jumped eleven barrels (22’ 5”) on March 1, 1987. Yay team. Obviously, we—and the barrels—would kick some serious butt in this event.

What’s the guy with the whistler doing?

The jumper has to leap a couple meters into the air to make it over, launching much like an airplane. “We must have speed and guts,” says Gilles Leclerc, president of the Canadian Barrel Jumping Federation, which tried for 25 years to get the sport included in the Olympics. In 1992, the CBJF sent a jumper to a Lillehammer winter-sports festival. But the demo was canned because of injury fears. A video was shown instead. Olympic officials still weren’t convinced.

Barrel Jumping was gay-friendly from the beginning.

“It’s a brutal sport,” said a spokesman. “Nobody really makes it. Everybody falls on their backside.” Leclerc, however, a former Canadian champ, says barrel jumping isn’t dangerous because experts wear padded bodysuits and know how to land. Even so, he says, the notion of barrel-jumping in the Olympics is dead. “Fewer countries are involved now, and the people are discouraged,” he says. “When you’re refused all the time, all the good jumpers stop training.” Was he talking about Women’s Ski Jumping?