Ski-jumping: Resurgent Eagle is left stranded

Eddie Edwards is jumping better than ever - he just needs a chance to prove it.
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The Independent Online
THE MAN at the British Ski Federation laughed when I told him Eddie the Eagle was planning to soar again. They always laugh when you mention the name. But Eddie Edwards insists that this time he wants to be taken seriously. Or at least a bit more seriously than before.

In finishing 58th out of 58 at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Britain's lone ski jumper propelled the sport on to the front pages with his knockabout antics. Now he aims to compete at the 2001 World Championships and the 2002 Winter Games in Utah.

"The last time people got the wrong idea about what sort of person I was," Eddie said over a coffee as the office Christmas parties erupted around us in a restaurant a few doors from his Cheltenham home. "They thought I was a sort of Mr Magoo, whereas I was just an athlete with a sense of humour.

"I still have that sense of humour but I want to show the world that Eddie Edwards can be a world-class jumper. I won't win a World Cup and I won't win the Olympics but I'm sure I can compete with the best and that's what I want to show."

The comeback nearly happened, he says, at Nagano. "Things were coming together nicely but all my qualifying competitions were cancelled due to no snow. But given another couple of years and an improvement of 10 to 15 per cent I should make the 2002 Olympics. By then I'll be nearly 38, definitely a bit old for ski jumping, but I don't have the problem of younger rivals because I'm the only one in Britain."

Eddie's two major obstacles are money and official disapproval. His last sponsorship deal ended in March and to resume full-time training he needs someone to put pounds 65,000 a year his way. If that is a steep call, the Eagle's biggest problem is the ongoing intention of the authorities to ensure he is grounded. "A lot of officials didn't like what happened at Calgary. They felt it wasn't right that a guy who came 58th should get more attention than the winner. They said I was making a mockery of the sport and bringing it into disrepute so they imposed new rules which effectively banned me, rules which affected others too. People like Americans can barely qualify now."

As well as minimum jumping distances, the International Ski Federation (FIS) introduced a requirement that a competitor needed to be in the top 50 per cent of the field. Last year in the US, Eddie fulfilled both requirements but the British Ski Federation refused to accept him because only five different nations were competing at the event instead of the required minimum of six.

With justification, Eddie feels they are ganging up on him. "The FIS, BSF and British Olympic Association have been trying to stop me competing internationally. They don't like the fact that I laugh and have fun and entertain the crowd. Maybe I am a little bit of a clown but I am also a serious sportsman. I always do the very best I can and I should be given the opportunity and the right to represent my country.

"Last season I was fitter, stronger and lighter, with a better technique than ever. When things started to go well for me their minimum criteria were no longer unachievable," said the Eagle, peering over his granny glasses and giving a huge grin. "On a big hill I'm regularly doing 115m to 119m and on a small hill 80m to 88m. So trying to jump 75m to get into the top 50 per cent is well within my capabilities. My only concern is that injury might set me back.

"I haven't had a serious injury since 1989-90 so I've been very lucky. My last bad accident was at Innsbruck where I broke my jaw and collarbone, fractured two ribs and damaged my kidneys. Then 18 months later I fractured my skull training in France. It's a wonderful sport but you've got to dare yourself to do it, knowing that if you get it wrong the consequences could be horrendous. But I've loved every minute since I started at 13, first skiing and then jumping."

While he awaits the arrival of a sponsor and a return to the jumps, Eddie makes what he calls "a decent living" from after-dinner speaking, opening bars, restaurants and ski slopes and appearing on sports shows. This weekend he is on TV in Germany, where he is an enduring favourite.

"I am thinking of moving into panto and theatre, but that depends on whether I carry on jumping. I also want to go to university or do an open university course to get a degree in law. That's my long-term goal, to become a legal eagle."

The Eagle nickname was given him by employees of a Calgary oil company in 1988. "I've been stuck with it ever since, but that's no bad thing. I've had letters from South America, China, all over the place, saying how much they enjoyed what I did. But I became a victim of my own success and was penalised in the sporting field. Most other sports would have been over the moon with the kind of coverage I got them but not the FIS. They took steps to get rid of me.

"But my skis are waxed and I'm ready to go again, just waiting for that call saying: 'Here's pounds 65,000, get off and jump.' And then hopefully people will say: 'Yes, he's a great character, he's great fun, but he is also a great jumper.' That's what I want people to think, not 'Oh, Eddie the Eagle, he was just a clown at the Olympics.' That's not what I intended.

"I'll show the FIS, BSF, BOA and the IOC what a good ski jumper Eddie the Eagle can be."