In 1957, Helmut Recknagel became the first non-Scandinavian to win at Holmenkollen in ski jumping. At the 1960 Winter Olympics, he won the ski jumping gold medal and was also the flagbearer of the mixed German team at the opening ceremony. In 1964 he finished sixth and seventh in the normal and the large hill event. He also received the Holmenkollen Medal in 1960, the first German to win the award. Recknagel won the 1962 World Championship at Zakopane and was elected East German Sportsman of the Year. He also won the Four Hills Tournament in 1958, 1959 and 1961.
Recknagel studied veterinary medicine and became a veterinarian. From 1970-90 he was a member of the GDR NOC and after German reunification was a member of the German NOC (1990–93). During this time he also worked as an international ski jumping judge. In East Germany Recknagel was a sports idol for his success and humility. In 2007, on his 70th birthday, he published his autobiography Eine Frage der Haltung (A Question of Posture). In 2011 he was inducted into the German Sports Hall of Fame.