Keith Elliott at Large: Whatever happened to Eddie the Eagle?: Britain's intrepid ski jumper intends to land on his feet despite landing on his head when clearing over 100 metres in his European Cup build-up

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The Independent Online
IF Dr Frankenstein had put his talents into building a sporting hero rather than a horror movie character, what qualities do you supposed he would have stolen?

I think he would have started by snaffling David Gower's talent, then moved on to collect Gazza's popularity, Seb Coe's looks, Linford Christie's speed (might as well have his physique, too, while we're there), Sally Gunnell's determination and Princess Anne's family wealth. Dr F certainly would not have filled his bag from a short, myopic plasterer called Eddie.

Remember Eddie the Eagle? He grabbed the sort of media attention usually reserved for the royal family when he finished 56 out of 56 in the Olympic ski jump. Those historic moments came five winters ago in Calgary but everyone still remembers the man who came last.

Mr Magoo, super-flop, famous- for-15-minutes Eddie. Couldn't handle it, of course. Got his own bodyguard, spent like Imelda Marcos, broke up with his girlfriend and ended up bankrupt. He's probably back in Cheltenham getting plastered.

Which goes to show that for all the publicity, we know very little about Eddie Edwards. For a start, his christian names are Michael David. And he has not given up ski jumping. In practice, he has jumped more than 100 metres, and this week he is in Switzerland training for the European Cup. Still Britain's best - indeed only - ski jumper, he has high hopes of a top 10 place in an event this season.

Edwards, now 28, has not done badly since being out of the limelight. During the past four years, he has earned around pounds 500,000 for everything from appearing on Wogan to opening petrol stations. He plans to appear in a movie and a pantomime, he is writing a book and doing stunt work. Yes, dim old Eddie.

Actually, he should never have been portrayed as a failure. He won his first skiing trophy at 14 and, three years later, should have cruised into the British team. 'But in those days, it seemed that teams were picked not on how good you were but how much money you had. I couldn't afford to compete, so I took up ski jumping, which is cheaper. But I'm still one of our best skiers.'

His post-Olympic publicity prompted a flock of birdmen to proclaim they could do better. But Brian the Budgie, Simon the Seagull, and Victor the Vulture, foolishly abetted by the British Ski Federation, decided that perhaps they could not fly after all when they saw the view from the top of a jump. Edwards never had such qualms.

Sharing a dollars 20-a-month room in Lake Placid with a drug addict and a born-again Christian was plenty of incentive to spend all day jumping. 'I started on the 10m jump and after an hour went up to 40m,' Edwards says.' I didn't give myself time to think about what I was doing.' When he tried to go higher, he was stopped. 'I was told that it takes several years, usually about eight, before jumpers are experienced enough to go off the 90 metre hill.' But, five months later, he made his first 90m jump. Within 18 months he was in the Olympics, having shattered the British record (set some time in the 1920s) with a 71m leap, though he had unofficially jumped 77m.

Not quite the perfect glide through space that top skiers attain, perhaps, but such stark statistics do not really put his achievements in context. For a start, jumping requires totally different equipment from skiing. Without money to buy the correct gear or even any ski wax, Eddie wore hand-me-downs. On one occasion, when his boots finally gave out, he borrowed a pair three sizes too big and wore 10 pairs of socks rather than forgo jumping.

He slept on floors, in cupboards, and in his mum's Cavalier. He even slept in a Norwegian mental hospital (an entirely fitting place for a ski jumper, some might say). He shovelled snow, scrubbed floors, raided dustbins and washed dishes so he could jump more. He watched others, picked up scraps from other jumpers and learnt through his mistakes, driven only by his own determination. He broke his jaw but had no insurance, so he tied up his head in a pillow case and carried on jumping. For days, he drank just soup through a straw.

'They were saying at Calgary that I shouldn't be allowed to jump because of my inexperience. But I was doing up to 50 jumps a day. Everyone else does five or six. I wasn't at all worried, but I just didn't have the right equipment.' On his only official practice jump, his ski bindings finally broke and the Yugoslavs lent him a spare set. In the circumstances, his 72m jump was an extraordinary effort.

Four years on, Edwards still looks more like Clarke Kent than Superman. He has painted the rims of his Milky Bar Kid glasses with splodges of pink, green and red. 'I like bright colours,' he said as if that explains it all. His clothes look like Oxfam rejects but he earns more than the Prime Minister. Where's the money gone, Eddie? How come you went bankrupt last year?

'As an amateur I had to put it into a trust fund. Now I'm suing my trustees for mismanagement. It's all gone, and I didn't get anything out of it. I don't own my own flat (he now lives in Bedford) and my car is supplied by Pontins. Anyway, I'm ever so mean. I would rather take a girl to McDonald's than out for a pounds 50 meal. I can't change my old habits.' Hmm. . . that's not what an old girlfriend says. She claims Edwards was generous to a fault.

Despite money worries, disputes with skiing officials, jealousy from other jumpers envious of his success, and a lack of the normal facilities available to every other ski team, Edwards has got better and better at jumping. 'I hope to break the British record with a jump of at least 90m this season. I've done 103m, though then I landed on my head. But I really believe I could finish among the top places in at least one event this season.'

He added: 'It's a hundred times more difficult for me than most of the others, who have been jumping from childhood. But ski jumping is 20 per cent physical and 80 per cent psychological. I've been reading a lot of books on psychology.' Imagine, Eddie the Intellectual.

However, Edwards is looking beyond ski jumping. He would love to build a ski jump in Britain to give youngsters the facilities he never had. 'The situation here is still that talent will get you so far, but money will get you a lot further.' And he is taking on ever-more daring stunts, as if ski jumping isn't scary enough. One typically wild idea is jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet without a parachute, and landing on air bags. Having lunch with Edwards, it made me wonder if he was really out to lunch himself. But then he can't be that daft. Guess who paid?

Edwards no longer blinks with agitation when confronted by crowds or cameras. He is even making after-dinner speeches. But he has not lost the puppy-like innocence that captivated us four years ago. As long as he does not kill himself beforehand, we might yet see Eddie the Winner.

Certainly he will never again suffer the indignity of his first press conference, when a diligent security guard would not let him in. 'You don't even look like an athlete,' he told our hero. But then, Edwards has proved that you do not need to.

(Photograph omitted)

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