Eddie the Eagle: the Cheltenham skier who became the Olympics’ greatest underdog

By Nick Friend

The story of Michael Edwards is the most British of underdog tales; a Cheltenham-born skiing enthusiast who, via an unusual eccentricity and unrivalled resilience, became one of world sport’s most recognisable names. Michael had become ‘Eddie’ long before an improbable fame found Edwards, but it would be the media’s christening of the Eagle as he flew gleefully off the Calgary slopes back in 1988 that would bring a remarkable unwavering celebrity to the modest part-time builder who, to this day, holds the British record for the ski jump.

Eddie the Eagle, the 2016 biopic in his name that conveys only a fraction of Edwards’ astonishing journey, has added another layer to a legend that last year saw him top a national poll of Great Britain’s greatest winter sportspeople. Edwards took more than twice the number of votes that 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Robin Cousins claimed, while staving off competition for top spot from Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean. The vote, if nothing else, highlights the British appreciation for the trier, for the little guy, for the quirky.

Edwards is all three of those, and he admits that even as he strove to reach the Winter Olympics of 1988 in Calgary, he did so with merely qualifying as his ultimate aim.

“When I went to Calgary”, he explains to me, “doing well in the competition never even crossed my mind because I’d only been jumping for twenty months when I arrived, whereas everybody else had been jumping for over twenty years.

“I was still very much a beginner but what I wanted to do was to get a little bit of attention, especially in the UK because I was Britain’s first ever jumper, and then to turn that attention into sponsorship to make it easier to qualify for the ‘92, ‘94, ’98 and 2002 Olympics and then over those subsequent ten years, I could have become better and better and better.”

For, unbelievable though it sounds in the modern era of professional sport where the Olympics are considered from the outside to represent the pinnacle of a life’s work, Edwards’ ski jumping experience amounted to little more than a year and a half, having arrived in America with the intention of progressing a promising career as a downhill skier.

“I was racing around the UK doing the ranking events and seeding events and then I got my licence to race internationally so I started doing that. But it was so very expensive to race on the international circuit; I didn’t have any sponsorship or anything like that so I saved up some money and went to America where I thought the costs of living would be cheaper.

“So I went out there with the intention of racing more out there and getting the ranking points required to reach the World Cup. But I ran out of money while I was there and I was in Lake Placid in upstate New York and I saw the ski jumps. Suddenly, I just thought and realised we’d had lots of alpine skiers and cross-country skiers and biathlon skiers but we’d never had a jumper so I basically just decided to give it a go, and twenty months later, I was at the Calgary Olympics as a ski jumper.”

The journey is an astounding tale, laying bare the extent to which Olympic regulations have changed – almost as a direct result of the Eagle sensation – as well as quashing the unfair and inaccurate myth that Edwards was a mickey-taking no-hoper, whose presence was devaluing winter sport’s premier competition. Indeed, at the time of the 1988 Games, he held the world record for stunt jumping and was the world number nine amateur speed skier.

As Edwards reminds me, even twenty-nine years on from the Eagle’s crowning as a figure of sporting fun at Calgary, the United Kingdom does not boast a single ski jump slope. Edwards still retains the British record for an event so dangerous that with every leap into the air, the jumper gambles with his own mortality. England is a country without snow, without coaches, without funding or encouragement for those wishing to take up the event. And so, Edwards’ Calgary attempt – finishing last in both the 70m and 90m events – still represents, in logical and realistic eyes, a monumental success.

“I managed to get to those Olympic Games and I did my bit and I did the very best I could. My job was done; I’d got there, I’d achieved my dream, I inspired other people to get out there and fight that fight and for me, that was the greatest thing. It was just a personal journey and I loved everything about. I loved doing it, it was such a dangerous sport. Every day jumping was tremendous and I enjoyed every second of it. I am immensely proud of what I achieved and I’ll always remember it.

Although Edwards acknowledges that there was a ceiling on his development, partially due to the financial constraints of maintaining a training camp in America and partly because of the twenty-year head-start of his competitors, there remains a feeling of frustration and regret – almost three decades on – that the ‘Eddie the Eagle Rule’, as it became known, would cut him down in his prime in 1990. Competitors in Olympic sport would, from then on, have to qualify for the Games based on their world ranking rather than relying on their national ranking – of which Edwards was the one and only British jumper.

“Eventually, the authorities had to come up with all these regulations to kick me out and keep me out. Ultimately, I was never going to be able to compete against the big organisations like the British Olympic Association, the British Ski Federation, the International Olympic Committee, the International Ski Federation.

“Unfortunately, when I got christened Eddie the Eagle and I got more attention than the guy that won the event, the authorities didn’t like it and they – essentially – indirectly imposed a ban on me competing by bringing out these new rules and regulations that effectively kicked me out of the sport.

“The British Olympic Association were okay. They had this policy of all-inclusivity – that if you were the best in your country at your event, then you deserved to go to the Games to represent the country at that sport. But it wasn’t until I got to Calgary and started to get all this attention that they changed completely and they tried to get a press embargo on me and ban me from doing any interviews with the media and it got out of control and that’s when they changed and they started to say that it was wrong and shouldn’t be happening. So, while they weren’t initially against me, it wasn’t until we were in Calgary that they did an about-turn and slammed the door in my face and told me to go away and that they didn’t want anything to do with me.”

“I was very upset about it then because the British Skiing Federation didn’t even put up any kind of fight against it. They just went along with it and accepted it because they didn’t like what was happening – they kicked me off the British team and the Olympic team. They didn’t like the fact that the guy that came 58th got more attention than the guy that won the event. They thought I was making a mockery of the sport and bringing it into disrepute and they didn’t fight my corner at all so I was very upset. All these big organisations were effectively kicking me out of the sport for very dubious reasons.”

Perhaps the most dubious aspect of the governing bodies’ reasoning behind Edwards’ effective ‘culling’ from world ski jumping, was the authorities’ misreading of the world’s reaction to the British ski jumper. While Edwards admits – as is displayed in the film – there did exist a minority of resentful ski jumpers, frustrated to be losing out on the global media frenzy to the amateur novice, ski jumping felt an enormous boon.

“90% of the jumpers loved it. They were loving it because all the attention that was being thrust upon Eddie the Eagle was, ultimately, being thrust upon the sport of ski jumping. Everybody thought it was fantastic because it brought the sport alive. It took the sport from page 47 to page one for two or three years.

“More kids wanted to go into ski jumping, more companies were wanting to put more money into ski jumping, more people were going to watch ski jumping. So it was fantastic for the sport. It was just one or two jumpers who thought, ‘Well I’m the best jumper in the world. I should be the most popular’, but not many thought that. But then, the federations agreed with them and started to think like that. But most of the jumpers thought it was a great boost and a great lift for the sport in general.”

However, the lack of support Edwards received from the various governing bodies still rankles with the athlete, not least because of what he views as a sacrifice of the Olympic spirit for what he now considers to be a “glorified World Championship.”

“People loved what I represented at the Olympic Games, exemplifying that Olympic spirit, and I wanted to show the world that I could be a really good ski jumper but all of a sudden, my wings were well and truly clipped and I wasn’t able to carry on.

It’s a personal thing really. For some, it’s going there and winning a gold medal. But for me, it was just going and taking part

“I feel that the Olympics have gone too far the other way into the professional field. It’s nice to have these professional athletes but it has put a shadow and a cloud over the Olympic movement. Ever since they introduced the professional ice hockey players from the NHL and the professional baseball players and now we have football, for goodness sake. How can Olympic football compete against the European Cup, the World Cup the Champions League and the like? It’s the same thing with having professional golfers and tennis players.

“For me, it’s just gone completely down the wrong way. You very rarely get these amateur sportspeople that the Olympics were really set up for. I think there’s room for both – the amateurs as well as the professional sportspeople. It’s the only competition where I think it should be allowed.”

The 1990 regulation change meant that competitors would be invited based on the possession of a world ranking within the top fifty, or within the top thirty percent of the sport’s athletes, effectively putting an end to the amateur aspect of the Games, in favour of a drastic professionalisation. For Edwards, competing in a sport with so little infrastructure in his home nation, his future was settled. Reaching the required standard would be virtually impossible.

“The rules that they brought out effectively killed the sport for jumpers in many countries. Ultimately, the jumpers in those countries couldn’t meet those rules and so nowadays, the strong nations are getting stronger and stronger but the weaker nations are getting weaker and weaker and disappearing. Competition should be all-inclusive and everyone should be able to go along to a competition and compete against one another. Each nation should be able to send their athletes. I think that’s a shame because there’s a lot more people out there who want to see the Eddie the Eagles and Eric the Eels of this world rather than the real sports purists who only watch sport to see the winners. Sport is for everyone.”

Edwards’ point here is an extremely valid one, and one made conspicuous by the absence in recent Games of true underdog sensations.

“I think anybody has the potential to be a great Olympian”, he tells me. “It’s a personal thing really. For some, it’s going there and winning a gold medal. But for me, it was just going and taking part. I guess it just depends on what your particular ideal is within your sport. For me, I was just doing the best I could at a sport we’d never done anything in before. I mean, I chose a ridiculously difficult sport to do and people loved me being there and doing the best I could with what I had, which was nothing. And for me, that embodied one side of being an Olympian.

“But for others, it’s all about going there and conquering your fears of competition and doing your very best and winning a gold medal. I guess it really depends on what sport means to a particular person. Personally, I am just as entertained by the Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel of this world as I am by the Usain Bolt figures because I believe that sport is a form of entertainment. Some people’s personal ambition is just to reach the stage whereby they have qualified for the Olympic games. For others, it’s to win the event.”

Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani Malonga secured fame at the Sydney Games of 2000, claiming an unlikely victory in his 100m freestyle heat after his competitors were both disqualified. His time was ultimately too slow to advance to the semi-finals, but his story was written in that moment – a fact highlighted by Edwards.

“It’s nice to see that these people are still going for it and achieving their dreams of going to the Olympics, regardless of their circumstances. It’s important to keep that Olympic spirit alive –  it’s not just about the winning, but about the journey, the getting there and the taking part. That is the most important aspect of the Olympics. I love these stories like mine. It’s nice to see that these guys are still fighting the system and getting through because I think it means more.”

Since Eddie the Eagle flew the flag for Britain and plucky underdogs worldwide, Amy Williams, Lizzie Yarnold and Jenny Jones have all collected medals in stunning displays of speed and skill. Yet, in thirty years’ time, it will still be Eddie Edwards whose courageous story continues to capture the hearts and memories of a nation addicted to such gutsy heart and self-deprecation.

“I’m very surprised that people still remember”, he admits in typically humble fashion.

“But when you think about the message I was portraying, it was such a powerful message that, in a way, I’m almost not surprised because it’s such a powerful message of hope and getting out there and achieving my dream of getting to the Olympics against all the odds. No matter how many people tried to stop me and told that it couldn’t be done, I kept going and never gave up, and I think that with the resilience and tenacity that I used, it became a very powerful message.”

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

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