With a Hollywood movie about his life due to be released in 2016 – starring Hugh Jackman no less – Anna Thompson grills Britain’s most infamous ski jumper, Eddie the Eagle, on winning big from spectacularly losing.
Let’s be honest, Great Britain has lagged behind the rest of Europe when it comes to winter sport success. International achievements are rare, which is why skier Konrad Bartelski’s second place at the Val Gardena World Cup downhill in 1981 led a French TV commentator to blurt out: “It’s not possible, it’s an Englishman!”
The wait for a British Olympic medal on snow only ended in 2014, with Jenny Jones’ triumphant snowboard slopestyle bronze in Sochi.
We love to celebrate a winner – but we take to our hearts a fearless trier too. And none more so than one British competitor – Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards – who captured worldwide attention for finishing last twice at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.
Eddie, Britain’s first ever Olympic ski jumper, didn’t exactly look like your typical athlete as he competed wearing his milk bottle glasses. However, he endeared himself to the public with his plucky underdog spirit, finishing 58th out of 58 competitors in both the small and large hill events in 1988. It didn’t matter he was jumping half the distance the medalists were achieving – it was Eddie the crowds were going wild for.
“They had 89,500 people at the ski jump which is the biggest crowd they’ve ever had at a live sporting event in Canada – before or since,” Eddie reminisces. “They were chanting ‘Eddie, Eddie’ about four jumpers before I was due to go – it was a lovely atmosphere. I was quite nervous but I was going to do the best I possibly could for myself and my country.”
Spectators watched with genuine concern that Eddie would injure himself, after strong winds meant the ski jumping was delayed for two days. The event director even asked for him to withdraw due to the conditions.
It didn’t matter to me whether I fell over or not but there were people watching around the world thinking ‘this may be good, he might break his neck’.
“I actually broke the British record, 71 metres, which was nice because I knew I wouldn’t beat anybody else on the day. I was going to enjoy every second of it and I think people liked the fact I was exemplifying the Olympic spirit. I was this tiny David of a country against the Goliath nations of ski jumping.”
At the closing ceremony Eddie’s “achievements” were singled out by organising committee president Frank King, who said: “At these Games, some competitors have won gold, some have broken records, and some of you have even soared like an eagle.” He subsequently became an overnight sensation and appeared on TV chat shows around the world. Eddie revelled in his new-found celebrity status as he was flown first-class to Los Angeles for the Johnny Carson show, where he was interviewed alongside film star Burt Reynolds.
But not everyone was enamoured with ‘the Eagle’. He was criticised for making a mockery of the sport and in 1990 the International Olympic Committee brought in a rule, which effectively made it nearly impossible for anyone to follow his example. It stated that Olympic hopefuls had to finish in the top 30%, or the top 50 competitors, in qualifiers.
All I wanted to do was to create a bit of attention, turn that into sponsorship and then carry on for the 1994, 1998 and 2002 Olympics and get better at ski jumping,
says Eddie. “Unfortunately, I became too popular in Calgary to the extent I got more attention than the guy who won the event. People in officialdom hated it, saying I was bringing the sport into disrepute. My wings were clipped and that was it. I was never able to compete at that level again. It was quite ironic, because I became so popular for exemplifying the Olympic spirit and then I go and get banned because of it.”
In between working as a plasterer and completing a law degree, Eddie has made a career out of being ‘the Eagle’ and is still in demand for after-dinner speeches, motivational speaking and TV appearances. He won ITV celebrity diving competition Splash! and was victorious in BBC slapstick assault course show Winter Wipeout. He reached the final of Let’s Dance for Sport Relief and returned to his ski jumping roots with Channel 4’s The Jump.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Calgary Games in 2008, Eddie headed back to Canada to a hero’s welcome and two years later he was a torchbearer ahead of the Vancouver Olympics.
And more than a quarter of a century since his hapless ski jumping attempts, a film called Eddie The Eagle is due to be released in the spring of 2016. Eddie rubbed shoulders with Hollywood star Hugh Jackman, who plays his coach Bronson Peary, and lead actor Taron Egerton while they were filming in the German ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Eddie says: “I signed a deal with a production company in Los Angeles about 18 years ago to make a movie about my life, but it’s taken this long to all come to fruition.
There’s an awful lot of poetic licence in the film and I’ve not had a lot to do with it, but I’ll be happy if they get the essence of my story right.
“It was great to meet Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton while they were filming and I have watched a five minute trailer which looks fantastic.”
The film’s been touted as “one of the biggest British movies for many years” and production company Marv Films believes its “portrayal of Edwards’ never-say-die approach to the sport celebrates the human spirit and resilience in the face of extraordinary odds and challenges”. Producer Matthew Vaughn even said: “Eddie the Eagle is the feel-good inspirational movie the world needs now more than ever.”
Here’s the trailer for the film, which is due out in cinemas on February 26:
It’s all a far cry from his teenage years in Gloucestershire, when he got hooked on skiing on a school trip to Andalo in the Italian Dolomites. “I absolutely loved it and when I returned I went to Gloucester Ski Centre. Within three months skiing had taken over my whole life. It was all I thought about, talked about and dreamt about,” he says.
Eddie left school and went to work as a ski instructor and race mechanic in Italy while improving his own alpine racing. He secured an international race licence and competed for Great Britain, just missing out on qualifying as a downhill racer for the 1984 Games in Sarajevo.
He spent his summers training on the Grand Motte glacier in Tignes and has fond memories of the resort. “I remember it was lovely and warm in the village and I’d go running around the lake and play tennis, but in the mornings I would be top of the glacier skiing away. It was fantastic snow at the top.”
It was when he fell on hard times while skiing in America that he was inspired to take up jumping. “I went to America to race but I ran out of money. I saw the ski jump in Lake Placid and thought ‘Britain has had alpine skiers, cross-country skiers and biathletes but never a ski jumper’ and I thought I’d give it a go. I always used to jump over my friends on alpine skis.
When I was working in Italy, I used to line up my group then jump over them. I jumped over piste bashers and all sorts – I was very comfortable with jumping through the air.
“All I needed to do was get used to the equipment, which was much different to alpine, and that was the most difficult part.”
There were no ski jumps in Britain but Eddie was on a mission to qualify for the 1988 Games and took a variety of jobs to fund his dream as he competed around Europe. He even lived in a mental hospital in Finland because he was only charged £1 a night. He was set a target of 70 metres by the British Ski Federation and was accepted by the British Olympic Association after jumping 69.5 metres in a World Cup in St Moritz, Switzerland. “A lot of people think I went on a wildcard like Eric the Eel or the Snow Leopard but they didn’t have a system like that in the 1980s. I earned my right to go,” he says.
Against All Odds
Although Eddie never qualified for another Olympics, he did continue jumping for a number of years. “My personal best is 119.5 metres which is quite respectable. I would have loved to have carried on and shown the world what Eddie Edwards and Great Britain could produce,” says Eddie.
Now 52, Eddie is teaching his two daughters to ski. “I still ski at Gloucester and I’m still just as excited when I put a pair of skis on now as when I was first starting out at the age of 13.”
He may not have become an Olympic champion – but how many ski jumpers from the Calgary Games can you name? For the record, Finland’s Matti Nykanen won double gold to confirm his status as one of the all-time great ski jumpers.
But Eddie deserves his place in Winter Olympic folklore too:
Getting to those Olympic Games was my gold medal and I got there against all the odds.