Wembley hosted an international ski jumping competition in June 1961

Credit: HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

There have been some memorable leaps at Wembley down the years. Jim Montgomery’s 1973 FA Cup final double save; Rene Higuita’s ‘scorpion kick’ in 1995; Scott Gibbs’ dive for Wales’ last-gasp winner against England in 1999.

Only a select few have managed to leap half the length of the pitch, though. 

“You landed just before the halfway line and you were going fast enough to finish just about where the goal was at the other end,” recalls Tim Ashburner of the great international ski jumping competition, which took place at Wembley 60 years ago last week.

Yes, you read that right. Ski jumping at Wembley in early British summer. For something so extraordinary – 36 athletes and their team managers came over from eight countries for the exhibition, with the very best (Class A) snow shipped in from Norway and a 150ft-high rig built to form a perfectly contoured K30 hill – it is remarkable how few people know about it. 

But then, that is the story of ski jumping in this country. Much to Ashburner’s regret. “Britain is the land of dry ski slopes,” he says, sadly. “Up and down the country there are more than a hundred of them, but there is still not one ski jump anywhere. In Europe and Scandinavia by contrast, there are hundreds of plastic ski jumps, but no dry ski slopes at all.”

The last surviving member of the three-strong British team who took part in the Wembley event, Ashburner – who turns 84 next month – spent much of his life trying to achieve lift-off for ski jumping in this country. He never got very far, coming up against, as he puts it, “one bloody-minded bureaucrat after another”. 

But he is still incredibly enthusiastic about it. His flat in London’s Old Brompton Road is filled with pictures and photos and paraphernalia which he is eager to show off. 

Tim Ashburner photographed at home in west London

Credit: HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

“My very first jump was at the age of nine, when my parents took me to Wengen in Switzerland and I saw a ski jumping competition for the first time,” he says, eyes sparkling, when asked how he got into such an obscure sport.

“I was absolutely hooked from day one. My younger brother and I built a small jump the next day, on which you could clear two lengths of a ski sort of thing. And it went from there.”

British ski jumping, Ashburner is at pains to stress, did not begin and end with Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards. We actually have a long and proud association with the sport. Asburner wrote an entire book on the subject. ‘The History of Ski Jumping’ (Quiller Press 2003) meticulously documents how Britons began ski jumping in Co Durham in the 1860s, while brothers Edward and William Richardson gave the first demonstration of ski jumping in Western Switzerland around the turn of the century. 

Wembley, meanwhile, was far from the first ski jumping exhibition to be held in Britain. There had already been demonstrations at Earl’s Court in 1939, and at Hampstead Heath and Edinburgh in 1950, the former attracting an unofficial crowd of 100,000. 

Ashburner also took part in a demonstration in Reddish Vale, Manchester, in 1960, the brainchild of two Norwegian students who were at the University. Those were the days of wonderful sporting eccentrics. Alan Crompton, who joined Ashburner in Manchester, had been captain of the British Olympic team at Cortina in 1956, and was the first person to cross the English Channel on water skis, having been towed to Calais and back by a speed boat piloted by Donald Campbell.

Ashburner’s recollection of the two days at Wembley are vivid. “It was a tremendous experience,” he says. “The greatest few days of my life.”

A 150ft-high ski jump was erected at Wembley

Credit: HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

The day before the show Sir Charles Taylor MP, chairman of sponsors Cow and Gate, plied the visitors with so much booze that some of them could hardly jump the next day. Ashburner recalls climbing the staircase inside the scaffolding, high above the great sprawl of London, to find the great Norwegian Hemmo Silvennoinen who had won Holmenkollen, Oslo, just 10 weeks before. 

“He was holding fast to the rail, and as he gazed straight ahead to the far end of the stadium, his eyes were blank. I said to myself: “My God… Hemmo is p—–! But so what? The hill was tiny compared with what they were accustomed to, so it was assumed he would be ok.” 

Unfortunately, he was not. Silvennoinen took off straight but fell and injured himself at the bottom. “Over the three performances, three others also came to grief with the happy outcome for my two British colleagues and myself in that we finished well off the bottom in the final results!” 

Alas, by the time Eddie the Eagle came to prominence in the 1980s, Wembley 1961 was long forgotten.  Ashburner who mentored Edwards in the build-up to Calgary, says it remains a source of great frustration that the surge of interest in the plasterer from Cheltenham did not translate into funding for a permanent slope in this country. “My fault perhaps in not getting him engaged to do something about this,” he reflects. 

And he is positively scathing about the recent film made about Edwards’ life. “Absolute rubbish,” he says. “I never had much objection to so much of the story being altered – some of it for economic reasons. But what I feel angry about is the contempt shown for the proud history of British ski jumping.” 

Ashburner competing in Wengen in 1972

Credit: HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

Ashburner says he cannot understand the continued lack of enthusiasm in this country today for a sport which is, he insists, “in our blood”. 

“The British people are descended in large part from the Viking race who invented the ‘hopp’ in their homeland more than a thousand years ago!” he points out. But he remains hopeful that those heady days of Wembley 1961 will be repeated. 

“Norwegian expertise in hill design and construction was freely given,  just as at Hampstead Heath ten years before,” he says.

“They will be just as keen to help today if any entrepreneur was to think that at long last the sport should be established in this country with the same type of modest start-up centre such as is found in almost every country of Europe and beyond. Ski jumping remains, to my mind, the greatest sport on earth.”