Alan Hubbard: Eddie the Eagle is still soaring high

These days Eddie the Eagle may sound more like a football club mascot (why didn’t Crystal Palace think of him?) but in back in 1988 he was away with the birds, soaring  to fame and misfortune as Britain’s tail-end-Charlie in Calgary’s Winter Olympics ski-jumping.

Oh, how the world giggled ,and how the blazers harrumphed as Michael Edwards, a plasterer from Cheltenham, soared though the air with the greatest of unease, finishing last in both events, a disaster waiting to happen in painful-to-watch slo-mo.

Edwards was our first Olympic ski jumper – and remains the only one, all guts and gumption but ultimately the eternal symbol of The Great British Loser.

We've rather lost track of him over the last 20-odd years but now the Eagle is leaping back into the public consciousness, minus the steam-up bifocals and this time with his feet firmly on the ground.

Towards the end of next year filming will begin on his life story with  Rupert Grint from the Harry Potter movies, playing the lead role. And next month Edwards returns to re-live his Canadian capers, carrying the Olympic torch through Winnipeg on its relay to Vancouver for next years’ Winter Games which start on February 12 .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.

After 1988 Olympic officialdom turned its back on him - and the de Coubertin philosophy that taking part is more important than winning, pouring scorn on his performance and virtually 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. 

Think hard. Name any other British competitor from those Calgary Games who did anything worth a mention on the sports ages, let alone the news pages. Well, there was Martin Bell, who finished a creditable eighth in the men’s downhill but otherwise Team GB's winter wallies either got stuck in a Rockies snowdrift or fell through the ice of the skating rink. It was Eddie the Eagle who grabbed all the glory – for his inglory. A figure of fun maybe, Unsteady Eddie, the abominable snowman, but the world admired his derring-do and old world phlegm.

Derided by then top brass and even some of his team-mates -those aesthete athletes who snootily thought he was taking the mickey out of sport - least the Eagle put some fun into the Games. During th ose Olympics he even received anonymous hate mail from those who reckoned he had stolen their thunder.

"The people in British Skiing didn't want me back in 1988 and they don’t want me now," he says. "The faces may have changed but the attitude hasn’t.  It’s a bit like an old boys club – the old farts in rugby.

 "I am sure some people will think, 'Oh no, not him again,' but I quite enjoy 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.   

We caught up with him in last week, not in Cheltenham, where he has his own building and plastering business - but the Caribbean, where the Eagle was cruising, not flying. He regularly travels on ships like P&O's Oceana, where he was celebrating his 46th birthday, entertaining passengers 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 have done since. The trouble is all my funny stories are true. Normally it takes ten to 12 years to become a ski jumper but I did it in five months. You could say I had a crash course."

He hopes to be in Vancouver working for TV but he says he’d 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."

The British Ski Federation could have picked him as a wild-card for subsequent Games but elected not to, even though his distances had increased from 55 metres (on the 90 metre jump) to 85 metres and from 71 metres to 115 metres on the 120 metre 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 wild-card. 

The Olympic authorities had already introduced what is known as the "Eddie Rule" which requires a certain standard in order to qualify – meaning that participating athletes had to be in the world’s top 50. At the height of his celebrity he was earning £10,000 an hour and was always on the box. "For two years I was all over the world, opening shopping centres, golf courses, hotels, fun rides, all kinds of stuff. It was great fun and really good money, but what people didn't realise was that at heart, I was simply an athlete who wanted to do the best I could. But I did enjoy the attention, and to be honest I still do.”

Once he dressed up as an Eagle for an opening ceremony, only to find the uniform they had provided was that of a chicken, and he was dropped as the presenter of a TV show on the British bobsleigh team when the bobbers objected. At the height of his fame, the red-tops started to probe his love-life. "They didn’t find much because there wasn't much to find."

He had returned from Calgary to a hero’s welcome, parading to a crowd of 10,000 in Cheltenham 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 course during which he was introduced to his future wife, Sam, whom he married in Las Vegas in 2003. They now have two young daughters, Ottilee, five, and three-year-old Honey.  

People may also forget that his Calgary adventure was no one-off. In all he reckons to have made thousands of ski jumps, the last in 1997, fracturing his skull twice, breaking his jaw, collar bone, ribs and damaging a kidney and knee. 

Eddie was the Eagle who dared. It is good to see him flapping his wings again for he deserves our salutation, not our scorn.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Games

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