Sunday, 2 February 2014

1988: Eddie The Eagle Edwards

Sport, especially in this internet age, divides opinion. As soon as anything happens that is slightly contentious - for example, the Luis Suarez penalty against Aston Villa recently - you just know what is coming. Battle lines are drawn, as views are expressed passionately, and heaven forbid anyone whose perspective on an incident differs from that which is seen as the definitive answer. It makes you wonder how the modern world would have coped with some of the sporting events of yesteryear.

Take Eddie The Eagle Edwards for instance. For some, the man was a hero, someone who sacrificed a lot to live the dream, an athlete who competed with a smile on his face, and deservedly reaped the rewards of his unexpected fame whilst he could. For others, Edwards was a laughing stock, belittling both the sport of ski jumping and the 1988 Winter Olympics, and represented everything that was bad in a nation that seemed to adore sporting losers. Either way, the story behind Edwards' rise to stardom is still fascinating all these years later, and love him or hate him, you cannot deny Edwards his place in Winter Olympics history.

Edwards progression from a downhill skier to a ski jumper was one born out of necessity. Trying and narrowly failing to qualify for the 1984 Olympics as a downhill skier, Edwards soon began to run out of money, and in 1986 he had a decision to make. "I didn't have much money, so thought I'd better find something cheaper to do. I went along to the ski jumps there (in Lake Placid where Edwards had been training) and thought: that looks all right". After a couple of hours on the 15-metre jumps, Edwards moved on to the 40-metre version, and promptly fell on landing. It wouldn't be his last accident. Five months later, Edwards had moved on to the 70m jump and was now on a mission to get to Calgary in 1988.

Inevitably things did not run smoothly. Without financial backing, and with no ski jumps in Britain, Edwards borrowed his mum's car and drove around Europe in order to qualify for the Olympics. In 1986 he jumped a British record distance of 68-metres in Kandersteg, Switzerland, bringing his Olympic dream that much closer.

Edwards' European tour was not a bundle of laughs, however. Penniless, he was forced to turn his hand to a variety of part-time jobs to make ends meet, including babysitting, cutting grass, working in hotels, and cooking. One time, Edwards ended up staying in a Finnish mental hospital paying £1 a night for the privilege - it was there that he would discover that he had made the Olympic team - and such was the shortage of money that on another occasion Edwards broke his jaw, but could not afford the medical bills, so tied it up himself with a pillowcase and simply carried on. No one said it was going to be easy.

As well as the monetary concerns, Edwards obviously had worries related to the ski jumping part of his life. Wearing six pairs of socks to make his second-hand boots fit, and a helmet tied on with a piece of string as it was too big for him - on one landing his helmet fell off, before the Italian team kindly provided him with a better fit - Edwards also had the problem of far-sightedness, which meant he had to wear glasses whilst jumping. "Sometimes I take off, and I can't see where I'm going," admitted a rather blasé Edwards, who didn't seem at all concerned that his glasses misted up in mid-air, thus restricting his vision. Sheer madness.

By Boxing Day 1986 Edwards was taking part in European Cup events - his debut was at St Moritz - and he represented Great Britain at the 1987 World Championships in Obertsdorf, Germany (unsurprisingly, he finished last). His popularity amongst crowds at World Cup events was growing, yet little did Edwards know the kind of reception he was about to receive when he got to Calgary in February 1988.

Arriving in the early hours of the morning, Edwards' accident prone nature extended to the carousel of Calgary airport, his luggage bursting out of his case and spilling pants and socks everywhere. Undeterred, Edwards jumped on the carousel and chased after his clothing, hardly the ideal start to his Olympic experience. And then came the first signs of what was to follow; waiting outside, was a Canadian TV crew and a fan club holding a banner declaring: "Welcome to Calgary, Eddie The Eagle". That nickname had been mentioned for the first time. The Eagle had well and truly landed.

Startled at first, Edwards gathered himself, before revealing his clumsy side again, as he went to greet his adoring public: "So I walked towards it (the banner). But the automatic doors had been turned off, so I walked into the glass and my skis bounced off the doors, everything broke and I became Mr Magoo." His fans, aware of Edwards' financial state, handed over a collection to their hero, who was fast becoming one of the central figures of the Games.

Indeed, many of the world's media decided to attend a press conference with Edwards, rather than sitting through a briefing from IOC President Juan-Antonio Samaranch, although Edwards got lost in the Olympic village and was not allowed to enter the media centre due to a lack of accreditation. When he did get to speak, Edwards was constantly defending his right to be at the Games. "Where is it written that the Olympics are only for winners?" stated a determined Edwards, and in some press quarters he had his backers.

The Times' David Miller, who before the Games wrote about Britain's ski jumper Michael Edwards (Eddie's real name), was certain that Edwards and the rest of his British team mates deserved to be at the Olympics, referring back to Baron de Coubertin's original philosophy of the taking part being more important than winning. As the days went by, the debate raged on, as the cult of Edwards grew and grew.

Amongst the media circus there was actually a ski jumping event at the Winter Olympics. To the purists, Matti Nykänen's two individual golds were thrilling, confirmation, if it was needed, that the Finn was one of the all-time greats. Yet for many of the 46,000 crowd watching the first event (the 70m jump), there was another heroic performance on display that Valentine's Day. He may have only jumped 55m on both attempts, but Eddie The Eagle was afforded an ovation worthy of a winner.

As soon as Edwards appeared at the top of the ramp, the crowd began chanting "Eddie, Eddie" repeatedly, as the man himself held his lucky charm - a golden boot given to him by his girlfriend Hannah - and said his usual prayer: "May I survive and come through this intact". Edwards had written Eagle in gold on his helmet as a tribute to his followers, and although he finished last and was a full 16m behind his nearest competitor, both Edwards and the crowd did not leave the venue disappointed, Britain's first ever ski jumping representative fully soaking up the adulation.

However, not all were enamoured with the attention that Edwards was receiving. The East German newspaper Junge Welt labelled him a "clown", accusing Edwards of debasing the Olympic Games. "Where would the Olympic Games go if the Eddie Edwards of this world took their place in every discipline and so discredited the sporting achievements of all those who far outstrip them in ability?" questioned the East Germans, who were not alone in voicing their concerns. At the end of the Games, the Daily Express' Malcolm Folley penned his thoughts on the issue, an opinion that was obviously shared by many in the IOC: "In future, competitors should be required to meet qualifying standards, before they are allowed to enter".

If the authorities had had their way, then that would have been that for Edwards' Olympic involvement. Before the 90m event, Calgary had been hit by strong winds, delaying both the men's downhill race, and the ski jumping. Norwegian Torjborn Yggeseth, director of the event, approached British officials asking them to withdraw Edwards from the final: "On a day with marginal weather conditions I would ask Edwards not to jump," declared a worried Yggeseth.

The appeal fell upon deaf ears. "Under Olympic rules we did not have the power to ban him from making the first of his two jumps," said Yggeseth, "But yes, we did go to the British delegation and asked them to withdraw him. Evidently they decided he could manage".

Between the events, Edwards had been bombarded with publicity, so much so that the British Skiing Federation set up a trust fund to cope with the flow of cash coming in - as Edwards was an amateur, his earnings could not go straight into his pocket - and the British Olympic Association helped to find him a manager to control his affairs. Edwards needed all the help he could get, with offers flying in from companies such as Vladivar Vodka, Olympus Cameras, Hamlet, and Cadburys. Edwards was a man in demand.

The night before the 90m final highlighted the fuss surrounding Edwards' every move. Invited to a supposedly private dinner with his family at a club, Edwards was shocked when hordes of reporters and TV crews appeared, chaotic scenes ensuing, as Edwards - billed by the club as "the man, the myth, the legend" - was invited on stage with a group of show girls called the Eaglettes.

After two postponements, the 90m event finally took place. As Britain's Wilf O'Reilly was winning a gold medal in the demonstration sport of short-track speed skating, Edwards was gaining considerably more attention for again coming last, although he had some consolation in setting a new personal best and a British record of 71m. And of course, he had managed to get through all his jumps without serious injury, which was a blessing for everyone.

Just one day later, Edwards was whisked away from Calgary, flown first-class to Los Angeles to appear on the Johnny Carson show, along with international film star Burt Reynolds. Heady times indeed. Edwards was not finished in Calgary though, returning for the closing ceremony, which would be another remarkable occasion. In his closing speech, Frank King, the Chief Executive of the Games, mentioned Edwards, something that had never been done before. "You have captured our hearts. And some of you have soared like eagles," stated King. Cue thousands of people crying "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie", as the 24-year-old stood up to milk the applause.

Before he had left for Canada, Edwards was a little-known plasterer from Cheltenham, a man who was probably only famous to those of us who used to watch Ski Sunday. But during the Olympics this dramatically changed, as the Eagle was front and back page news throughout the Games, as the whole country sagged under the weight of the hype surrounding his activities. Heathrow airport was positively swarming with press men and fans - along with a model for Vladivar Vodka, who was attempting to get a photo snapped with Eddie - as Edwards made his way through the terminal on arriving back in England. No accidents on the carousel this time, no problems with electric doors, and a considerably bigger crowd to greet him (a rumoured 10,000), as over 20 policemen helped Edwards through the mass of bodies.

Britain's new superstar was immediately whisked off to a London recording studio to record his Top 50 single Fly Eddie Fly - we could have done without that to be honest - and to appear on Wogan, albeit with Sue Lawley standing in. A civic reception awaited in Cheltenham a day later, Edwards trapped inside a Rolls-Royce desperate for a wee as thousands lined the streets, screaming "Eddie is our hero". Luckily, Edwards found a toilet before boarding a beer lorry for his parade. For a time, Edwards' feet did not touch the ground.

From an overdraft of £2500 and unpaid bills of £5000, Edwards was now commanding top dollar, getting paid up to £10,000 an hour to open rides at Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and in one day earning £65,000. Understandably, Edwards made hay whilst the sun shined, claiming to have earned between £500,000 and £600,000 in 1988 alone.

Through it all, the arguments for and against Edwards and his sudden rise to fame rumbled on. The Times' Simon Barnes was firmly in the Eagle's camp, writing "But don't condemn him for taking part in the Olympics and doing his poor best in them. Or are the modern Olympics not for the taking part but for the winning?" Yet the wheels were in motion within the IOC to make sure that athletes like Edwards did not get the opportunity to take part in the Olympics in future; in 1990 the Eddie "The Eagle" Rule was established, meaning an athlete had to be in the top 30 percent of international competitors, or the top 50, whichever was fewer. Edwards would never again compete at an Olympic Games.

Gradually Edwards' star began to fade, as was bound to happen. He did continue ski jumping in Europe and by 1998 Edwards was reported to be jumping distances of 85m and 115m on the 90m and 120m jumps respectively, but he would never again make the Olympics. By 1992 things had taken a sour turn, as Edwards entered involuntary bankruptcy, unable to pay a tax bill due to his trust fund being managed poorly - Edwards would subsequently settle out of court against his trustees, getting some of his money back.

A return to building suggested a fall from grace for the Eagle, yet the after-dinner speaking circuit and motivational lectures still kept the money coming in. He even made money after selling the film rights for his life story - it's still in the pipeline - and was a torchbearer in Winnipeg, as part of the relay as the Olympic flame made its way to Vancouver for the 2010 Games.

So which side of the fence do you sit? A no-hoper who made a mockery of international sport, or a plucky underdog who captivated the world through his bravery and determination to fulfil his dream? Personally, I agree fully with the opinion of David Miller, who commented that "They (competitors such as Edwards) have a place in the Games, but not in the newspapers". Surely everyone has the right to represent their nation in the Olympics, although the level of celebrity afforded to Edwards was a little over the top. At the time, I loved it though, probably because I was a 12-year-old boy who had not been around the block enough to gain enough cynicism to criticise as many did during the Games in the letter pages of national newspapers.

Those who still mock Edwards - and there were plenty who did so at the time - should consider the sacrifices the man made to get to Calgary in 1988, the bravery needed to take yourself to the top of any ski jump and propel yourself off it at speeds of 50mph. Yes, the celebration of his poor performance was not ideal for any sports fan, and being famous for not being very good at something is a problem that still pervades this country today.

But who out of any of us would have turned down the chance of fame that came after all that Edwards had put himself through, who could have knocked the money back after years on the breadline? It is easy to moan and/or laugh at Eddie The Eagle Edwards, but from purely a sporting point of view, I feel he deserves a lot of praise for making his Calgary dream a reality.


  1. This is an excellent article. I can vaguely remember Eddie Edwards, I think he was right to cash in though as everyone loves a tryer. Brings Eric the Eel to mind also. Its funny when you mention the fact that he probably got more attention than the actual winner. Wouldnt happen nowadays...

  2. Another terrific blog. I remember Eddie the Eagle but I didn't know about his adventures around Europe in his quest for qualification. A man who made huge efforts to get to the Olympics, he deserved all the acclaim and rewards he received. I hope whoever owns those film rights to Eddie's story uses them soon, I think it could do very well. Mark.

  3. Excellent piece, and I'm with you - there's enough room for everyone and the guy deserves kudos for giving it a go.

    I might be misremembering, but I think I read that Rupert Grint had been cast as Mr Edwards in the biopic.

  4. 'Cool Runnings' is a film about exactly the same sort of idea - no hopers having a go. It is part of the magic of sport, and of the Olympics in particular. There is a balance to be struck of course: sport should celebrate achievement and success, it can't be all about plucky losers. It is slightly worrying if the guy that comes last earns more fame and cash than the bloke who wins. But there must always be room to celebrate those who battle against the odds...and charisma is charisma. And Eddie the Eagle had it in spades.

  5. Who can forget 'Eddie the Eagle'? A well written article on the legend with some captivating thoughts. Kudos!!!