Stirring photo of Jarkinnen’s balloon 8 hours after his death, Guadalajara 1968
Mexico City, ‘68
Gold Medal, Endurance Ballooning
Hot Air Ballooning was first used as a demonstration sport in the 1900 Paris Olympics, and was such a transcendent hit with spectators that the IOC moved to make it an official event immediately after the closing ceremonies. Over the next 25 years, ballooning ballooned in popularity, and champions like Arthur Van Der Sneer and Eduardo “El Aire Caliente” Dominguez were treated like celebrities and gods everywhere they went. Crowds of more than 100,000 gathered for World Championships, and the Olympic showdowns in that era were the stuff of legend.
The balloon craze that swept the world cannot be underestimated. Stockholm was awarded the Games in 1912 almost completely due to the fact that Sweden’s wealthy ballooning boosters raised millions of dollars to bribe the IOC; at the 1920 Games, the Antwerp Balloon Riots began when partisan fans of Van Der Sneer and Dominguez fought a pitched street battle in a forerunner to modern hooliganism, each side intent on proving their superiority (ironically, the riots were ended when Antwerp police dumped vats of tear gas on the hooligans from hot air balloons); when Van Der Sneer defeated Dominguez on a technicality that year- Dominguez had supposedly committed a lane violation near the finish line- even U.S. president Woodrow Wilson filed a protest.
But from this auspicious beginning, ballooning’s immense popularity soon began to decline. Most historians, including ballooning scholar Friedrich Weiss of the Hamburg Institute, blame the invention of airplanes. “You have to understand,” said Weiss, in a seminal 1956 interview with Balloon Enthusiast magazine, “that ballooning was the chief mode of air transportation for a very long time. It was hip, it was fun, it was in the air. You can’t discount that last part; it was critical to the whole phenomenon. But when the Wright Brothers came along…well, that was like bringing filet mignon to people who had been gnawing on rat testicles their whole lives. It changed the game.”
Before long, the Wrights were multimillionaire jetsetters, and ballooning was quickly going out of a fashion. By the mid-60s, the IOC were holding long debates about whether to remove the sport from the Games for good. They provisionally agreed that the ‘68 Mexico City Games would be the death knell of competitive ballooning, declaring it a “bygone aerial pastime, no more than a sideshow for musty nostalgists.”
Strange, then, that ballooning came back into prominence through the least popular of the sport’s two variations, endurance ballooning. Speed ballooning had always been the fan favorite, with the thrilling spectacle of the colorful contraptions floating toward the finish line inspiring poetry and literature. But endurance ballooning? That had always been considered the province of lunatics, those odd men who wanted nothing more than to leave the earth for weeks at a time to live in a wicker basket and let their minds drift with the balloons to strange and fantastical places. Indeed, an old German fable encouraged children to “think not with the fanciful mind of the endurance balloonist, but with the practical wisdom of numbers.”
Luukas Jarkinnen, born and raised outside Helsinki, had expressed ardent escapist desires from a very young age. When he was seven, he told his mother Eerika, a seamstress, that he no longer wanted to stay on this earth. The panicked woman thought he was expressing suicidal tendencies and hired an original Freudian therapist to analyze his mind, but the misunderstood Jarkinnen only wanted to be like a bird. At the Helsinki Air Convention in 1932, the 14-year-old boy discovered his passion. He quit school and began gathering materials to build his own balloon. The finished product- named “Freud’s Mistake,” in a jab at his therapist- was a primitive casing of nylon (the pieces stitched together in haphazard fashion using his mother’s sewing kit) above a rickety basket fashioned from interlaced sticks. In its maiden voyage, Freud’s Mistake caught on fire within an hour and crashed to the ground. Jarkinnen sustained severe leg burns, and would bear the scars for a lifetime.
Things got better after that first flame-out, and Jarkinnen later set a world record when he remained in the air for 40 days at one time in 1952, air-sailing to Moscow in a calculated PR stunt to confront Josef Stalin for his Siberian prison gulags. (Once he reached the Soviet capital, he was apprehended and interrogated, and Finland was forced to release 10 captured Soviet spies in exchange for his release.)
By 1968, he was the favorite to take the gold medal in Mexico City. The endurance balloon competition began several weeks before the opening ceremonies to ensure that it would finish by the time the Games concluded, and from the start Jarkinnen outclassed his rivals from inside the balloon “Charon’s Ferry.” Endurance balloon competitors are given nothing more than a book of 24 matches for the burner, a picnic basket with food that would feed a normal man for a week at most, and a small blanket. Yet while others struggled with hunger and the unseasonably cold Mexico City temperatures, Jarkinnen was at peace, floating within the confines of the air course. At times, he could be heard singing snippets of Finnish folk tunes, but mostly he was silent, lost in his head.
On October 17, the third day of the Olympic Games, his last competitor drifted to the ground, hypothermic and hallucinating, after 27 days in the air. The organizers beckoned Jarkinnen to the earth, and while he drifted low enough in Charon’s Ferry to collect his gold medal, he took one look at the officials and the smattering of fans gathered below, and repeated a quote from his childhood: “I shall no longer stay on this earth.”
“He’s going to kill himself!” shouted a Freudian in the audience, but instead Jarkinnen took his gold medal and began to drift away. For the next two weeks, he explored the Mexican countryside, becoming an instant celebrity wherever he went as news of the “mad balloonist” spread throughout Mexico and the world. Television specials were produced in 47 different countries chronicling the adventures of the “sky hermit,” and newspapers were awash with tales both real and imagined about the “human bird.”
Jarkinnen soon reached Guadalajara, where one fateful night, aided by a full moon, he witnessed a massive drug deal between two criminal syndicates from nearby Puerto Vallarta. The criminals noticed the balloon when its shadow passed over the moon, and began shouting at Jarkinnen. He shouted right back, an enemy of injustice to the end, vowing to tell the police and put them all in jail. In desperation, one of the criminals attempted to shoot the balloon from the sky. Instead, he shot Jarkinnen in the head, killing him instantly. The Finn slumped into the wicker basket, the gold medal still around his neck, and Charon’s Ferry floated toward the Pacific coast.
News of the assassination spread quickly, and the world mourned Jarkinnen’s death. Spontaneous wakes were held in most major cities, and shrines were built in hio honor. Famously, two U.S. track and field medalists defiantly raised a fist to the sky at the 200-meter medal ceremony the next day, honoring their fallen champion.
Jarkinnen’s family hoped for a proper funeral, but strangely enough, his balloon would not come down to earth. The propane supply should have run out in the days following his death, but it never deflated. Three weeks later, it was spotted in Chihuahua, and a month after that in the small village of Santiago Papasquiaro. Months went by, and then years, and still the resilient balloon was seen all over Mexico- first in Monterrey, then in Fresnillo, then in San Luis Potosi, and then down south in Oaxaca. The legend of the “eternal balloonist” grew, and, true to his vow, Jarkinnen would not return to terra firma.
Finally, in 1997, Charon’s Ferry floated across the U.S. border near Rio Bravo, and was shot down by American border police who suspected that illegal immigrants were harbored inside. As the balloon descended, flames leaped from the basket, consuming everything aside. By the time it hit the ground, first responders found no human remains, and only tatters of the once-glorious nylon casing. But there among the ruins, still shining through the smoke and drifting ash, was a symbol of the spirit that left the earth for good- Jarkinnen’s gold medal.