Alan Hubbard

He flew through the air with the greatest of unease, that daring young man unsteady on skis...

Thirty years ago the world was preparing to chuckle as Britain's most unlikely Olympian took off to make one small leap for snowman-kind.

Eddie The Eagle was about to land, to be lodged in our consciousness forever more.

How Pyeongchang 2018 could do with a good giggle to lighten the mood as the Winter Games open this week with the snow and ice covering a political minefield.

Back in Calgary in 1988, certain sniffy blazers at the British Olympic Association and British Ski Federation had turned their backs on the bespectacled plasterer from Cheltenham - and the De Coubertin philosophy that taking part is more important than winning.

They poured scorn on his last-place plummet and ignored 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.

"I was a thorn in their side," Eddie Edwards has said. "They slammed the door in my face and told me to go away, but I am still here."

A comedic figure back in 1988 maybe, but unsteady Eddie, the abominable snowman, was loved by the public, who admired his derring-do and old-world gumption. Derided by officialdom he may have been, but at least the Eagle put some fun into the Games, even if former Sports Minister Richard Caborn was to declare that he did not want to see the like of Edwards anywhere near a GB team again.

Eddie the Eagle captured the imaginations at the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
Eddie the Eagle captured the imaginations at the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

In Calgary, where the Eagle dared, as in the Nordic heartlands of ski jumping, he was seen as someone to be celebrated, not sneered at. 

"I'm surprised people remember me," he said. "It must have been a strong message I gave out. 

"I was a true amateur and typified what the Olympic spirit is about. 

"Some may have laughed at me back home but in other countries they appreciated what I was trying to do because they understand the difficulties and complexities of the sport."

Eddie - real name Michael Edwards - was Britain's first Olympic ski jumper - and remains the only one. The nearest the Olympics ever got to another of his kind was Eric the Eel, Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea, who at the 2000 Sydney Games took almost two minutes to swim a 100 metres freestyle heat.

Although the Eagle turned out to be the turkey who wanted to fly, he 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 degree during which he met his future wife Sam on a blind date. They married in Las Vegas in 2003 but have since expensively divorced.

Father-of-two Edwards says splitting with his wife of 13 years took around 85 per cent of his wealth, leaving him "wiped out".

For a year The Eagle's nest was a shed in the garden of a house he was renovating, and he says he virtually lived on egg sandwiches as he was so broke.

"I had bought this house to do up while my wife and I were still together and I took the roof off it, but then we split and I left the family home to come here," he said to the Daily Mail

"With no roof, I stayed in the shed that year. 

"It's only small, six foot by six foot, but I put a bunk bed in with a stove underneath. 

Eddie the Eagle in action at the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
Eddie the Eagle in action at the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

"I had to climb down on to the worktop to get out of bed but for a while it was home and it was quite nice, actually. 

"Except when it rained or when the foxes were mating."

He had picked up his passion for skiing on a school trip and originally wanted to be a downhill racer but realised that jumping offered what was then an easier route to the national team.

At the height of Eaglemania he was earning £10,000 ($14,000/€11,000) an hour and was always on the box. He remains in demand as a motivational speaker, cruise ship entertainer and after-dinner "turn".

"I talk about my life as a ski-jumper, including video clips of some of the funny things that were said about me," he said. "Then I tell them what it was like as an Olympian and what I've done since. 

"The trouble is that all my funny stories are true. Normally it takes 10 to 12 years to become a ski jumper but I did it in five months. You could say I had a crash course."

His biggest disadvantage was not that his thick pebble glasses steamed up, but not having any funding. "My ski helmet was tied on with a piece of string and on one jump the string snapped," he said. "Not holding on to the helmet was the biggest mistake of my life - the helmet carried on much further than I did." In Calgary the Italian team gave him a new helmet and the Austrians provided his skis.

The British Ski Federation could have picked him as a wildcard for three more Games but snootily elected not to, even though his distances increased from 55m, on the 90m jump, to 85m and from 71m to 115m on the 120m 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 wildcard. The Olympic authorities had already introduced what is known as the "Eagle Rule" which requires a certain standard in order to qualify - meaning participating athletes had to be in the world's top 50.

Those three decades on he still resolutely refuses to see himself as a loser, more a dedicated winter sportsman who has overcome massive odds. "What people didn't realise was that at heart, I was simply an athlete who wanted to do the best I could," he has said.

Eddie the Eagle remains as one of the most famous Winter Olympians ©Getty Images
Eddie the Eagle remains as one of the most famous Winter Olympians ©Getty Images

His story was made into a film released in March 2016, starring Hollywood action man Hugh Jackman as his coach and British character actor Taron Egerton as Edwards. It made him £185,000 ($258,000/€208,000) but nearly all went on his divorce settlement.

"I cry every time I watch it," he said to the Daily Mail. "It really captured what the Olympics meant to me.

"But there are a couple of bits where they used artistic licence. The scene where my team-mates got me drunk and I missed the Opening Ceremony was one.

"Put it this way, if Angelina Jolie had offered me hot sex in return for missing the Opening Ceremony I would have said 'thank you Angelina, I'm flattered, but not today'. I gave my life for the Olympics - I wouldn't have missed any of it.

"I really can't believe it’s been 30 years."

Nor most of us. Eddie the Eagle should not be remembered as a joke figure, but a national treasure.