Eddie the (legal) Eagle is back

Ski-jumping's loss may be the law's gain. Can he qualify this time?
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The Independent Culture
FIRST, THE red tips of a pair of skis appear over the edge of a 150ft-high building. Then a figure in green tracksuit bottoms and a grey sweatshirt comes into view. The man hoists himself into position and, with the aid of ropes and a harness, starts skiing down the vertical face of the building. Eleven years after coming 58th out of 58 in the ski jump at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, "Eddie the Eagle" Edwards is back.

At the end of his charity abseil at London's South Bank, two women ask for Eddie's autograph. Chuffed, Edwards, 35, obliges and agrees to a picture. He strikes the familiar pose - manic grin and thumbs-up sign. But Edwards has changed. The trademark jutting lower jaw has been corrected by surgery, and the milk-bottle glasses have been replaced by a tiny pair of studious specs, over which he peers when he wants to make a point.

``They make me look intelligent,'' he laughs, tucking into a muffin. It's an image he would like to cultivate. His Olympic high jinks brought fame and fortune, but being remembered as "the man who came last" is starting to grate. ``It gets a bit tiresome,'' he says. ``I don't think anybody who represents their country at the Olympics can be considered a failure.''

Edwards started skiing at 13 on a school trip to Italy and, by 17, he was racing with the British team. But the travel costs were too high for this son of a plasterer, and he switched to the cheaper sport of ski jumping. He worked scrubbing floors in a scout centre in Switzerland and trained with other national teams. He borrowed a helmet and goggles from the Italians, a ski suit from the West Germans, and skis from the Austrians.

By the time he arrived at Calgary Edwards had a well-worked game plan - act the fool and win over the crowd. ``I wasn't that good a ski-jumper,'' he explains. ``I wasn't going to win any medals and I thought by being different I could get attention from a sponsor.'' At a news conference he told of all the broken bones and the helmet he wore tied on with string. And, as his rivals stretched and prepared mentally for their jumps, Edwards made sure he was caught relaxing with a copy of The Sun.

"Everybody loves an under-dog,'' says Edwards, and the next three years proved it. He earned around pounds 700,000 from promotional work but was broke again by 1991 due to failed investments. He eventually won half that money back in a settlement.

Then there were the women. ``I probably could have slept with a different woman every night for two or three years but it's not part of my nature. I'd never had any one-night-stands before. It was something quite new. I was 24 and not so naive that I believed the women fancied me.'' Edwards has been without a girlfriend for the past five years. He fears no woman would ever take "Eddie the Eagle" seriously.

While waiting to see what the future holds, he lives with his parents and grandmother in Cheltenham. He hopes to compete in the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City but must find a sponsor and maintain the 119 metres he jumped in training last year (48 metres further than in Calgary). Qualifying is now harder. The International Ski Federation's so-called "Eddie Rules" mean Olympians must either be ranked in the world top 50 or be placed in the top half of a European Cup.

He currently earns money performing stunts such as jumping over buses on skis, as well as opening events and after-dinner speaking. He says three film production companies are also interested in making his life story. But he admits: "I can't live off `Eddie the Eagle' for the rest of my life."

If he fails to qualify for Salt Lake City, Eddie plans to go to university next September to study law (a legal eagle?).

But even Edwards wonders if anyone would want "Eddie the Eagle" representing them in a court of law.