65 years later, the Empire Stadium ski jump remains Vancouver’s strangest sporting spectacle

Sixty-five years ago today the world’s best ski jumper was in East Vancouver launched over Empire Stadium in a strangely unique event that to this day holds a special place in local sporting lore.

The May 3, 1958 Centennial Ski Jump Invitational featured a very tall and narrow tower of scaffolding and ice erected at the north end of the stadium. Looking at today’s archive photos, it doesn’t look like anyone died.

“I don’t think there’s a more bizarre event than this,” said BC Sports Hall of Fame curator Jason Beck.

“The craziest thing was how far they had to go on the stage because they obviously didn’t have a hill. So they built this scaffolding 165 feet high. [50 metres] tall. I’ve been told it literally swayed in the wind.”

The spectacle was put together by a committee in charge of organizing events to celebrate British Columbia’s 100th birthday.

The Empire Stadium ski jump will sway from side to side in the wind. (Jewish Museum and Archives BC)

According to Beck, tons of ice were brought in, crushed and scattered on the roads and landing areas near the infield.

Vancouver wasn’t the center of ski jumping in 1958, but thousands of fans flocked to the city for the competitions.

Sadly for organizers, most avoided buying tickets, opting instead to watch the free flyers from the rooftops and streets of the Vancouver Heights neighborhood to the east of the stadium, rendering the four-day competition a financial failure.

“They have decent ones [paying] the crowds but what they don’t account for is you can sit outside the stadium on a hill in East Vancouver and see it all because the event towers over Empire Stadium,” said Beck.

“My favorite line on that is from Jim Kearney who writes for the Vancouver Sun. He estimated there were over 100,000 people watching from outside the stadium so he called it a ‘Canadian record for freeloading.'”

A huge man-made ski hill rises above the stadium.
Most of the people who watched the ski jump competition did it for free from a hill east of the stadium prompting a local sports writer to declare the event a ‘Canadian record for a free load.’ (City of Vancouver Archives)

World champion Juhani Kärkinen of Finland won the gold medal but never had a chance to defend the title as 1958 remains the first and only time that Vancouver hosted an international ski jump competition.

“This is another small part of the amazing history of Empire Stadium,” said Beck.

“Not only are there BC Lions and Whitecaps, Miracle Mile, Harry Jerome running up there, The Beatles and Elvis, but there’s also crazy ski jumping events being held there.”

Hadwin Floyd

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