ROSA KHUTOR, Russia Feb 8 The Olympic men's ski jumping competition starts on Sunday on a normal hill so challenging that one of the favourites for gold has dubbed it "a mean girl".
Several contenders, including double defending champion Simon Ammann, said they were still trying to adjust to a relatively flat in-run that makes take-offs challenging.
Top-ranked Kamil Stoch of Poland had three largely indifferent jumps on the first day of training on Thursday but on Friday posted two firsts and a second, prompting him to review his initial downbeat impressions of the hill.
"I called her a mean girl. She is not my best friend yet but is becoming a good colleague," said the 26-year-old, who last year won the large hill title at the World Championships.
Jernej Damjan of Slovenia predicted a very tight finish.
"I think the competition is really really close together ... I think the top five will be within half a metre at the end. Style will matter a lot," he said.
Jumpers are judged on both distance and style.
Robert Kranjec of Slovenia, who fell during training on Thursday, said the artificial snow used on the hill tended to deteriorate after the first 50 jumpers.
Ammann, who won both the normal and large hill golds in the 2010 Games, said he had not yet worked out how aggressive to be on the in-run. His comments reinforced the impression that the 32-year-old will do well to finish on the podium.
"I don't have any hopes. I'm here for the ski jumping ... I will just fly," said the four-time Olympic gold medalist, who was also Switzerland's flag bearer at the opening ceremony in Sochi on Friday night.
HUMBLED AND THRILLED
Ammann is relatively old for a jumper but looks positively youthful compared to 41-year-old Noriaki Kasai, who is entering his seventh Olympics in search of an elusive individual medal.
"There is a doubt I will win. It is 50/50," the third-ranked athlete said on Tuesday. He did not take part in any of the training jumps.
The oldest man ever to win an Olympic individual jumping gold is Jens Weissflog of Germany, who was 29 when he triumphed on the large hill in 1994.
Peter Prevc of Slovenia, ranked second in the world, is another good prospect for a medal.
The Austrians, traditionally among the more powerful ski jumping nations, are not in the best of shape.
Fourth-ranked Gregor Schlierenzauer took three weeks off before the Games to work on his technique while team mate Thomas Morgenstern is recovering from a bad crash and admits he is not fully fit.
Such were the questions about Morgenstern's presence in Sochi that the Austrians felt obliged to produce the team doctor at a news conference on Friday to insist there was no medical reason for the jumper not to compete.
Women will be jumping for the first time ever at Sochi - albeit only on the normal hill - after a 15-year fight with Olympic organisers to be allowed in.
"I am humbled and thrilled to be here ... It has been a long, uphill battle to get here and I couldn't be happier," said Jessica Jerome of the United States.
The clear favourite is 17-year-old Sara Takanashi from Japan, who has built up a colossal lead in the current World Cup season.
Her main rival should in theory be Sarah Hendrickson but the American suffered a bad injury last August and has only just regained fitness.
"Having this injury has relieved a lot of the pressure ... I'm now kind of an underdog," she said.
Other likely contenders for a medal are Austrian veteran Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, Carina Vogt of Germany and France's Coline Mattel, who won a World Cup event here in December 2012. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)