Fifty-two years after “The Agony of Defeat,” the Slovenian ski jumper pays NH a visit 

  • Vinko Bogataj holds a pair of 1980 Kneissl jumping skis that William McCrillis of Hopkinton still uses on Tuesday. BELOW LEFT: A undated photo of Vinko Bogataj ski jumping. BELOW RIGHT: Vinko Bogataj with ABC sportscaster Jim McKay who had the iconic call of, “€œThe thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” at the beginning of the popular show The Wide World of Sports.€ GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Vinko Bogataj talks with his grandchildren as they translate for him during his interview at the home of William McCrillis in Hopkinton on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Vinko Bogataj with ABC sportscaster Jim McKay who had the iconic call of, “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” COURTESY—Sandra Bogataj

  • A undated photo of Vinko Bogataj ski jumping. COURTESY—Sandra Bogataj

  • A undated photo of Vinko Bogataj with ski jumpers. COURTESY—Sandra Bogataj

  • A undated photo of Vinko Bogataj ski jumping. COURTESY—Sandra Bogataj

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/21/2022 4:31:03 PM

For those old enough to remember, the vision of the dark, grainy figure seen tumbling through the air 52 years ago will last forever.

“The Agony of Defeat,” said “Wide World of Sports” sportscaster Jim McKay, labeling the action on a ski jump on that snowy, windy day in West Germany.

Are you with me? Are you seeing some poor guy turn into a rag doll on national television, an indelible image that came to represent the pain of losing, packing such a wallop that it remains with many of us today, dusting itself off and making an appearance now and then when someone mentions the phrase?

The grainy footage from that crash made him famous. It became part of the introduction to ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Different versions over the years showed boxers with their arms raised or Mario Andretti spraying champagne after winning a race as part of the “The Thrill of Victory” section.

Vinko Bogataj was used as the visual illustration for the agony of losing, which stuck in the collective minds of sports fans across the country.

“In real-time, he really didn’t realize at the moment initially what a big deal it was,” Matevz Pintar, a 21-year-old college student in Slovenia, said via Zoom, who was summarizing more than translating his grandfather’s thoughts from thousands of miles away in Hopkinton.

“Then afterward, it struck him later what a big deal that was,” Pintar said. “You have to be really famous, really like an important thing to get asked for his autograph.”

Muhammad Ali was the asker, at an event 11 years after the jump. Vinko Bogataj was the signer. 

This week Bogataj sat on a couch at Bill and Leci McCrillis’s Hopkinton home and relayed his thoughts to a computer screen, to his granddaughter Ziva Pintar, an 18-year-old high school student in Slovenia; and her brother, Matevz, a 21-year-old college student there. 

They responded to me in English, which they began studying in fifth grade. Their English was solid. They live in Bled, with scenic views that resemble paintings, which is what Bogataj now does to make a living. He paints landscapes and sells them.

He enjoys recalling what happened to him on March 7, 1970, in Oberstdorf, West Germany. He enjoys it so much, in fact, that the ski-jumping community in Andover, Newport and Lebanon had enough connections to ask the infamous ski jumper to be their honored guest.

The Granite State is home to Jeff Hastings and Mike Holland, two internationally known jumpers and perhaps the best New Hampshire has ever had. Bogataj served as the starter for a Hastings event nearly 30 years ago. Also, Peter Graves of the Upper Valley serves as one of the central broadcasters on the World Cup circuit.

That was enough to put something together. To feature the man who stayed with many of us, after all these years.

There’s a golf tournament at Eastman Golf Links in Grantham and an awards ceremony on Friday. Dinner Saturday night will be held at the Fireside Inn in West Lebanon.

It’s a reunion of jumpers from past decades, promoting the cash-strapped sport and raising money to keep its already faint pulse beating.

Bogataj has donated three of his paintings for sale. He’s the VIP this weekend, the celebrity guest star, another example of a picture being worth far more than 1,000 words. This one lasts a lifetime.

“He says he wouldn’t be here if he did not like it,” Bogataj said, according to Matevz. “It’s a beautiful adventure. He works at World Cup events each year, as a starter. He’s still associated with everything.”

Bill and Leci McCrillis offered to host Bogataj during the early part of his trip. Bill ski jumped at Newport High School in the early 1980s. He’s a member of the biggest ski-jumping organizations in the Granite State. He’s 57. He grew up watching that intro.

“We thought who can we bring who is well-known and a celebrity,” McCrillis said. “(Graves) reached out and he said yes. A lot of people remember what happened to him.”

His English was basically non-existent. He had a full head of white hair, wore jeans and had massive hands, a pair of monsters with fingers thick like meaty sausages

Bogataj was not a star at the meet in Oberstdorg, in West Germany, and never was. At least not in the way others garnered fame.

As he headed down the in-run, maybe two seconds before spilling over the side, just a few feet from the take-off point, McKay called him one of the “Younger ones” and noted that Bogataj had already fallen on an earlier run.

A light snow had started falling when Bogataj approached the gate for his third and final run. The snow was heavy, the slope fast. Too fast, in fact.

The grainy video shot by ABC shows Bogataj falling backward as he tries to center himself. Still on the jump, he slides on his backside, then his skis spin as he falls off the lip.

Suspended in midair, Bogataj flips head over skis, but is fortunate to land on his side, not his head. He bounces off the ground into an upright position, his body lifeless, before he disappears into a crowd of spectators.

So what in the wide, wide world of sports were his injuries? Busted ankle, concussion.

“He says he remembers almost everything like at the start,” Ziva said. “The actual fall he doesn’t remember, but the next thing he remembers is when he hit the ground and all the people came rushing to him, ‘are you okay, are you okay?’ ”

She said her grandfather’s initial response was “My head hurts a little bit but not really. He wanted to get up by himself. He did not think it was a big deal.”

A few years later, the crash was added to the show’s intro. Wide World ran for nearly 40 years, plenty of time for people to see it, wonder how bad the damage was and then hang onto it in their minds.

In Slovenia, not so much.

“Actually, I don’t know about his fall for a really long time,” Ziva said. “First learned it three years ago. I heard he is really known in America because he failed. It was like a surprise for me. In Slovenia, nobody really knows about the fall, but a big deal here.”

A very big deal here. The Pittsburgh Pirates invited Bogataj to throw out the first pitch at one of their home games. Ali, the greatest boxer ever and one of the most important voices coming out of the 1960s, sought him out. Not the other way around.

The star will shine again this weekend. Bogataj will need a translator, someone to relay what’s inside him 52 years after he came crashing into our living rooms through black-and-white TVs.

His grandchildren don’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. Something struck a cord, at least in the United States.

“It was hard for me to comprehend that it was him,” Ziva said. “I saw the video and was shocked. It’s an epic fall.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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