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Brighter future for Pine Mountain ski jumping tourney

Like seasonal birds, ski jumpers from around the globe have made their annual mid-February arrival in Iron Mountain — an expected 37 in all, from nine nations that include Norway, Poland, Germany, Slovenia, Canada, France, Kazakhstan, Austria and, of course, the United States.

The 2020 Bellin Health Pine Mountain Continental Cup ski jumping tournament was to kick into high gear today with official training jumps set to start at 1 p.m., if weather cooperated.

The competition portion is to be 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with trial rounds starting at 11 a.m. both days.

The ski jumps usually are the premier winter event in the Iron Mountain area, an excuse not just to marvel at athletes defying gravity with only a couple planks strapped to their feet but also to put on hillside parties that rival Green Bay Packers tailgating.

But the 2020 event feels like it has an added boost, an extra dose of anticipation.

For several years, it seemed the Iron Mountain ski jumps labored under a shadow, an uncertainty whether it would survive and manage to adapt for what was needed to stay competitive. Strong crowds and enthusiasm weren’t enough — the sport’s governing body, the International Ski Federation, or FIS, insisted the aging Big Pine Mountain venue be upgraded modern standards to remain on the ski jump schedule.

Specifically, a new stair tower on the side of the starting stairs, a warming room atop the stairs, a wider start gate and a temporary or permanent elevator all need to be done to continue to host an FIS tournament.

The Kiwanis Ski Club that oversees the event estimated about $4 million would be needed in improvements to position the Iron Mountain venue to host World Cup events — a steep financial hill to climb.

Then, this past summer, new hope emerged when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other high-ranking officials in the sport announced at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in Ishpeming their support for hosting high-level international skiing competitions in Michigan, specifically the Upper Peninsula.

That was to include $3 million in loan and grant money from the state for the 176-foot Pine Mountain ski jump venue, part of a $10 million appropriation from the Northern Michigan Tourism and Sports Fund and Great Lakes Sports Commission.

Even more promising, the governor and an FIS official indicated Iron Mountain is in line to have a World Cup ski jumping competition in 2021. Pine Mountain most recently hosted an event of that level in 1996 and 2000.

Pine Mountain has been the site of world-class ski jumping since 1939, after the county assisted the federal Works Progress Administration in building the giant scaffold and landing hill.

Now, it appears it will be well-poised to remain a top-tier venue for the sport — and Iron Mountain can continue to look forward each year to a raucous February weekend on Pine Mountain, watching international skiers soar.

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