Unsteady Eddie is a national treasure, not a national joke

Twenty-one years after his last-place plummet, the 'abominable snowman' will soar again when he carries the Olympic torch before the Winter Games...there's even a Harry Potter star playing him in a new film

Alan Hubbard
Sunday 06 December 2009 01:00

A couple of decades after capturing the world's imagination as the tail-end Charlie of the ski-jump, Eddie the Eagle is soaring again, reminding us just how much we have missed him.

Back in Calgary in 1988, the blazers turned their backs on him – and the De Coubertin philosophy that taking part is more important than winning – pouring scorn on his last-place plummet and ignoring the enormous contribution he had made towards raising awareness about the Winter Olympics to an otherwise apathetic British public. Not to mention his unbounded bravery.

Now Eddie Edwards is back. Next year work will begin on filming his life story, with fellow ginger-top Rupert Grint – "that guy from Harry Potter" – in the lead role. Originally it was to have been Steve Coogan. "But I looked at the script and hated it – it made me sound like Alan Partridge," Edwards tells us.

More significantly, next month he returns to Canada 22 years on, carrying the Olympic torch through Winnipeg on its relay to Vancouver for the Winter Games which start on 12 February. It is an invitation – extended by the British Columbia Tourist Board – which he has received with pride, more so as it will get up the noses of the authorities who have scoffed at him in this country. "I am sure some people will think, 'Oh no, not him again,' but I quite enjoy that. I like being a thorn in their side. They slammed the door in my face and told me to go away, but I am still here." And still standing, though not jumping, even if he would quite like to be given the opportunity. "The people in British skiing didn't want me back in 1988 and they don't want me now."

A comedic figure maybe, but unsteady Eddie, the abominable snowman, was loved by the public, who admired his derring-do and old-world gumption. Derided by officialdom he may have been but at least the Eagle put some fun into the Games, even if the then sports minister, Richard Caborn, declared during the last Winter Olympics in Turin that he did not want to see the like of Edwards anywhere near a GB team again. "I thought his comments pretty disgraceful," recalls Edwards. "It was a very silly thing for a sports minister to say. His remarks were totally out of sync with what the person in the street thinks. He may consider me incompetent but I'd like to see fewer incompetent ministers like him running the country."

In Calgary, where the Eagle dared, as in the Nordic heartlands of ski jumping, he was seen as someone to be celebrated, not sneered at. Now he says: "I'm surprised people remember me. It must have been a strong message I gave out. I was a true amateur and typified what the Olympic spirit is about. Some may have laughed at me back home but in other countries they appreciated what I was trying to do because they understand the difficulties and complexities of the sport."

Edwards was Britain's first Olympic ski jumper – and remains the only one. The nearest the Olympics ever got to another of his kind was Eric the Eel (Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea), who in the 2000 Sydney Games took almost two minutes to swim a 100metres freestyle heat.

Although the Eagle turned out to be the turkey who wanted to fly, he returned from Calgary to a hero's welcome, parading to a crowd of 10,000 in Cheltenham – where he was brought up – with a slice of pizza in one hand and a Thomas the Tank Engine flag in another. In the following months he amassed a small fortune in endorsements and public appearances, placing most of it in a trust fund, but when the Inland Revenue sent him a tax bill in 1991, he discovered the money was gone, lost in a series of bad investments by his appointed trustees. This led to a bankruptcy petition and, inspired by the legal battle with the trustees, Edwards embarked on a law degree during which he met his future wife Sam on a blind date. They married in Las Vegas in 2003.

At their home in Stroud he is simply Michael Edwards, father of two young daughters, Ottilee, five, and three-year-old Honey. The man who began his working life at 17 as a plasterer is now a self-employed builder but eventually hopes to qualify as a barrister.

He had picked up his passion for skiing on a school trip and originally wanted to be a downhill racer but realised that jumping offered what was then an easier route to the national team. At the height of Eaglemania he was earning £10,000 an hour and was always on the box. He will be back on TV this Christmas, as he has just made a commercial for the insurance company Churchill.

"For two years after Calgary I was all over the world, opening shopping centres, golf courses, hotels, fun rides, all kinds of stuff. I once had to jump out of a helicopter to open a tourist bureau in Devon dressed as an eagle but the only costume they could find was a chicken. But I'd been paid a lot of money so I just flapped around."

His appearance has changed. He is no longer the Fred Scuttle of sport with those thick glasses and a chin more prominent than Jimmy Hill's. He had surgery to reduce his jaw, and lens implants so he no longer uses spectacles. "I know my glasses were part of how people recognised me, but I have great eyesight now and it's better than being famous." Of course, he is not as in demand as he was, though he still earns about £30,000 a year for after-dinner speeches and regularly travels on ships like P&O's Oceana, where last night he celebrated his 46th birthday, entertaining passengers on their Caribbean cruise with a motivational lecture and his inimitable winter's tale.

"I talk about my life as a ski-jumper, including video clips of some of the funny things that were said about me. Then I tell them what it was like as an Olympian and what I've done since. The trouble is that all my funny stories are true. Normally it takes 10 to 12 years to become a ski jumper but I did it in five months. You could say I had a crash course."

His biggest disadvantage, he says, was not that his glasses steamed up, but not having any funding. "My ski helmet was tied on with a piece of string and on one jump the string snapped. Not holding on to the helmet was the biggest mistake of my life – the helmet carried on much further than I did." In Calgary the Italian team gave him a new helmet and the Austrians provided his skis.

People may also forget that his Calgary leap was no one-off. He persevered with his impossible dream and reckons to have made thousands of jumps (the last in September 1997), fracturing his skull twice, breaking his jaw, collarbone and ribs and damaging a kidney and knee.

The British Ski Federation could have picked him as a wildcard for three more Games but snootily elected not to, even though his distances increased from 55 metres (on the 90m jump) to 85m and from 71m to 115m on the 120m jump. And he wasn't always last. In the US Championships he finished 29th out of 85 and believed he had qualified for the 1998 Games but was again refused a wildcard. The Olympic authorities had already introduced what is known as the "Eddie Rule" which requires a certain standard in order to qualify – meaning participating athletes had to be in the world's top 50.

He hopes to be in Vancouver working for TV but he says he would much rather be up there on the perch waiting to fly again. "I always knew that at any time I could have killed myself, yet whenever I got it right, it was the most exhilarating thing in the world, but always, always scary."

He resolutely refuses to see himself as a loser, more someone who has overcome massive odds. "What people didn't realise was that at heart, I was simply an athlete who wanted to do the best I could."

Although his shipboard chats are light-hearted, he does convey an inspirational message. "I've known hardship, sleeping in a psychiatric hospital in Finland [a Finnish trainer working there offered him free accommodation in their equivalent of Broadmoor], cars and cow-sheds, but I still managed to get to the Olympic Games, and that was my gold medal. Nobody expected me to get there, but I did. My talks are about achieving things against all the odds, fighting for what you want."

These days Edwards keeps himself fit – especially when he is on board. "I have a routine. I always have breakfast, then a spa treatment and spend most of the afternoon in the gym running and using weights. I love it."

However, there will be less exotic things to do when The Eagle has landed back home next week. Jokes his wife: "There he is, bobbing up and down on the high seas sunning himself, and back here we've got two poorly children and a leaking roof!"

So, just as in Calgary, Eddie the Eagle will be coming back down to earth with a bump. What a shame that there are those in British sport who continue to see him as a national joke, when he should be a national treasure.

Fascinating Facts

Michael Edwards (born in Cheltenham on 5 December 1963) was working as a plasterer (above) when he became the first man to represent Britain in Olympic ski jumping, setting a British record of 73.5m at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. He will be a torchbearer for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, running with the torch on 7 January in Winnipeg. He was the world No 9 in amateur speed skiing (106.8mph) and the stunt jumping world record-holder (10 cars, six buses). Handicapped by his weight (13 stone), he was more than a stone and a half heavier than his rivals.

Very short-sighted, his glasses fogged to such an extent that he could not see while skiing. Nicknamed Mr Magoo, an Italian journalist called him a "ski dropper", and the entry requirements for ski jumping were toughened after 1988. He released a book and video called 'On the Piste' and recorded two songs in Finnish entitled 'My Name is Eetu' and 'On Eddie's Wing'. He promoted cars on TV, commanding fees of £10,000 an hour, but declared bankruptcy in 1992. In the early 2000s, he co-hosted a Sunday morning show with Trish Campbell on BBC Radio Gloucestershire. Also appeared on 'The One Show' last year, celebrating the role of the underdog after John Sergeant's Strictly Come Dancing heroics.

A film chronicling Eddie's life story will be made next year by Irish director Declan Lowney. Comedian Steve Coogan was originally picked for the title role before Lowney announced that Harry Potter star Rupert Grint will play the lead. Eddie is currently in the Caribbean doing motivational work on a cruise ship.

Marc Padgett

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