Good morning all. I watched actual baseball last night, a “summer camp” game between the Yankees and Mets, and it was wonderful. At one point, my daughter even laid on the couch with me and watched an entire half-inning. This was possibly a tactic to be allowed to stay up for an extra ten minutes—it worked—but still, a nice moment. I had to be forced into watching by my stepfather, via text, since I have some strange hesitancy about preseason things in general, but I’m glad I did. In case you’re wondering, Aaron Judge is still a golden god:
For today’s post, I invite you to the wilds of Canada, and the bygone age of the 1980s, to meet one of the world’s…adjective deleted…athletes. My friends, it’s time to talk about Eddie the Eagle.
The first thing you have to know is that in the year 1988, the nation of Great Britain had not had an athlete compete in Olympic ski jumping since 1928. There was a very good reason for that: There are no ski jumping facilities in the entire U.K. Not then, not now. As you might imagine, this is not a sport you can pick up on the fly and practice on your own. In order to be any good—stop me if this blows your mind—you need a giant ski jump.
As a side note, that’s one of the funny things about winter Olympic sports in general. All sports require access, opportunity, and money to some degree, but when you’re talking about something as universal as running or as accessible as basketball, the limitations are much less. But to be good at ski jump, there really is no alternative to living near a ski jump. My tiny hometown of Saranac Lake, NY, and Lake Placid next door, routinely produces Olympic athletes, and our greatest success story is Chris Mazdzer, who became the first non-European to win a medal in men’s singles luge. But every time the Olympics roll around, we’ve got a few people involved, including kids I grew up with. This is not because my town of 5,000 people produces a disproportionate number of great athletes. It’s because we have a ski jump hill, and a bobsled/luge run, and a school where somebody will teach you to ski and shoot a rifle. It’s about opportunity and access, and with very few of those facilities in America (seven ski jumps, just two bobsled/luge runs), we’re hogging the resources. I’ll let you guess how many NBA, MLB, or NFL players we produce…
Anyway. That brings us to Michael “Eddie Edwards,” born in December 1963 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the son of a plasterer (father) and aluminum factory worker (mother). Before skiing, the formative sports memory of his youth came at age ten, when he hurt his knee so badly playing soccer that he spent two years in various casts. On a school trip to Italy at age 13, he discovered skiing, and took it seriously enough that he earned money from being an instructor at age 15 and became a member of the British national team. He moved to Lake Placid, NY to pursue his dream full-time, but began to run out of money and missed qualifying for the Olympics. It had been an obsession of his since he was a small child, and he wasn’t ready to give up. In Lake Placid, undoubtedly staring at the massive ski jumps rising from the forest, he got the idea to try the relatively cheaper sport of ski jumping. Not only would it save him money, but if he got any good at it, there was literally no competition in his home country.
In pursuit of his dream, he lived out of his car (or, in one memorable instance, in a Finnish mental hospital…but not as a patient), foraged for food, and worked odd jobs for a little money. As he told Smithsonian Mag later, the lifestyle was not glamorous:
“When I started competing, I was so broke that I had to tie my helmet with a piece of string,” he says. “On one jump the string snapped, and my helmet carried on farther than I did. I may have been the first ski jumper ever beaten by his gear.”
But he competed in the 1987 world championships, and managed to qualify for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. It was not an auspicious beginning, as Sports Illustrated relates. His suitcase “burst open” in the Calgary airport, he got lost in the Olympic village, and he missed two practice runs because he couldn’t get his skis waxed. He had to inherit skis from the Austrians, and a new helmet from the Italians. Meanwhile, he entertained and delighted journalists, and began to emerge as a kind of cult figure even before the jumps.
But oh, the jumps. The glorious jumps. That’s when the world met Eddie Edwards, and when he earned his nickname, “Eddie the Eagle.” Part of the beauty of his performance was how he looked—the bottle glasses that fogged up during each run, making him look like a myopic troll. The short, heavy body, in contrast to his lithe competitors—only 5’8″, he was still 20 pounds heavier than any other skiier. Later, describing one of his first runs to an English broadcaster, he said that, “I was so frightened that my bum shriveled up like a prune,” and in Calgary, he very much looked the part.
At the 20:25 mark of this video, you can see his first jump in the 70m event:
The real drama, at least for the announcers, was whether he would be able to stop himself before hitting the wall. And the summary of his jump was a masterclass in understatement: “55 meters…a little below the standard.” In an article in Smithsonian Magazine published almost 30 years later, the author wrote, “of the 58 jumpers in the 70-meter event, he just missed being 59th.”
That was thing about Edwards—he was very, very bad at ski jumping. Maybe in some sense anyone who manages not to kill themselves is “good” at this sport, but compared to his peers, Eddie the Eagle did not belong on the slopes. He finished last in both events, and in the 90m jump, there was a larger gap between Edwards and the second-to-last place skiier than there was from second-to-last to first. A good view of the difference can be seen in this side-by-side footage of his 90m jump and the one executed by gold medalist Matti Nykaenen of Finland (cue it up at 1:35):
As you might imagine, he was beloved by most fans, who recognized the humor in Eddie the Eagle’s mission. Others, though, resented the attention he was getting, and you can understand why. Imagine working your entire life at your sport, and then a dilettante with with bad eyesight and worse talent comes in and hogs the lion’s share of the spotlight. Especially in a sport that’s featured just once every four years, it’s easy to see how that could sting. Later, he reportedly received angry mail from ski jumpers who hadn’t made the Olympics, but had worked hard to do so, and hated to see someone like Edwards steal the show. An East German paper took the hardest line, writing, “what would become of the Olympic Games if the Eddie Edwardses of the world took their place in every discipline and so discredited the achievements of all those who far outstripped them in ability?”
An Italian journalist took a funnier approach, simply calling Edwards a “ski dropper.”
And Edwards was absolutely hungry for attention. Certain events played into his plans brilliantly, such as when the International Ski Federation tried to get him banned from the 90m event for his own safety, creating a sense of drama where otherwise there would be none. It was a perfect symbiotic relationship between Edwards and the press, and because there’s very little attention paid to ski jumping in the first place—it’s a short event crowded into a two-week program—there wasn’t much oxygen for anyone but Edwards.
He took advantage of it, too, appearing on the Johnny Carson show with Burt Reynolds, an appearance you can watch here at the two-minute mark (following a Pat O’Brien NBC segment):
After the Olympics, he got a hero’s welcome back home in Cheltenham (a “non-victory parade”), and an immediate endorsement deal with Eagle Airlines. As you might imagine, Edwards threw himself into becoming a pitchman for anyone that would have him. He got an agent, and at some point he got plastic surgery on his chin. (As Smithsonian relayed, one British tabloid wrote that he “has had more plastic surgery than a Nazi war criminal.”) Somehow, he briefly became pop star in Finland and sang in front of 70,000 people at a festival in Helsinki backed up by a heavy metal band. More recently, he’s done cruise ships and reality TV.
He lost all his money when a trust fund went broke, but received a 100,000-pound settlement. He went to school for a law degree, but still works as a plasterer. In 2016, they made a movie about him starring Taron Edgerton and Hugh Jackman, and he became rich again from the royalties, but then lost most of it in an expensive divorce settlement when his wife left him (forcing him to live, for a time, in a garden shed). His story now is the story of a celebrity whose original act of fame is fading into the past.
But he described himself after his divorce as “resilient,” and it’s hard to argue. Here’s a man who through sheer ingenuity finagled his way into the Olympics, and then became an icon by means of charisma rather than talent. Add to the mix a brilliant ironic nickname, and you’ve got an unlikely offbeat legend. Someone who can craft that from nothing, from a dream that would provoke nothing but laughter if he spoke it aloud, going from riches back to rags is just another twist in the adventure.