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Eddie the Eagle

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When I'm at the top of the 90-metre jump I can think of a million and one reasons not to go through with it. It looks dangerous and it is dangerous. The next jump could be my last.

You'll find plasterer Michael Edwards in the Yellow Pages. He's one of only a handful in the area around the Gloucestershire town of Stroud, so you may have to book his services well in advance. Not only is he busy with the day job; he is also in demand as a motivational and after-dinner speaker, as well as fulfilling other PR engagements. Some of his plastering clients don't recognise him today, or maybe only after they've done a quick double-take of his features and racked their memory. They'll need to rewind to February 1988, at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, when Edwards had a Warhol-esque moment of fame as his alter ego: the British ski jumper 'Eddie the Eagle'.

Once you've recalled the image, you won't forget it in a hurry. He wore all the right gear – electric blue  lycra suit, helmet and skis – and, like other ski jumpers, came hurtling down a massive ramp on the side of a dizzyingly steep mountain. But whereas rival competitors launched themselves into a streamlined, gravity-defying glide for what seemed like several minutes, before touching down softly at the foot of the mountain, Edwards' flight trajectory was, well, different. Think of a 25kg bag of Artex being lobbed into a bucket.

When the Eagle had landed, he'd pick himself up and ski to the foot of the hill, then turn to the camera, lift his goggles and grin from ear to ear, looking at you through fogged-up, improbably thick glasses. He always came last by quite some distance. The crowd, the watching millions and the world's press loved him.

Where Eagles Dare

Edwards learned to ski on a school trip at the age of 13, but already had a history of daredevil antics. At the age of five, he was hit by a plank while playing on a building site and bit off his tongue (it was sewn back on). Then at 11 he needed 30 stitches in his face after trying to impress a girl by riding his bike off a three-foot ramp onto a gravel car park.

He developed into a promising junior downhill and slalom skier. But on one occasion when the money ran out, Edwards decided to try the jumping discipline, making his first attempt at Lake Placid, just two years before Calgary. His borrowed boots were so large he wore six pairs of socks, and his cadged helmet was tied on with string. However, he very quickly graduated to the highest level: the 90-metre ramp. Aware there was no other British ski jumper, let alone a British team, he decided to aim high and joined the World Cup circuit. Having very little funding, he took a succession of odd jobs – babysitting, chopping wood and shovelling snow – to make ends meet. He lived on bread and jam, and dossed anywhere he could afford, including a spell at a Finnish mental hospital.

It was one pound a night and I could just about afford that. But I was a bit wary of somebody coming to my door every evening with an axe.

When his helmet fell off during a jump, the Italians on the circuit generously bought him a new one. His other equipment was similarly donated by other teams. He was also invited to train with them, although he didn't quite convert it all into competitive advantage:

I got a lot of advice from Austrian and French ski-jumping coaches, but because I can't speak French or German a lot of it went over my head.

After 18 months or so, he had honed his technique and a dream came true when he was selected to represent Great Britain at the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Calgary Stampede

When he stepped off the plane, the last thing Edwards expected was press attention. Unbeknown to him, the hapless ski jumper had acquired a Canadian fan club, who put up a large sign: 'Welcome to Calgary, Eddie the Eagle.' Edwards didn't recognise it at first, but was no doubt glad when they handed him some money to tide him over. Neither was his passage through the airport without incident. His bags burst open on the carousel, then after he had rounded up his stray underwear he walked into a set of automatic glass doors which had been switched off.

Having reached his accommodation and unpacked, Edwards discovered his ski bindings had been crushed, and in repairing them he missed the first practice session for the opening 70-metre event. He then locked himself out of, first, the ski-waxing hut, and then his room at the athletes' village. It was a constant stream of comic anecdotes which fed the media scrum.

Poor weather dogged the games, and journalists were grateful for any story they could get to fill the empty schedules. Edwards spoke candidly of his fears at the top of the jump; how he couldn't see a thing through his fogged-up lenses; and his previous injuries:

I broke my jaw but I didn't have any medical insurance; I didn't want to go to the hospital. I couldn't afford the bill. I just put a scarf around my face to hold my jaw in place and carried on jumping.

One recurring story was whether it was actually safe enough for him to jump. Many expressed concern at the blizzards and cross-winds which had caused the 90-metre event to be delayed for days on end. Was it just a matter of time before this Darwin Awards candidate met his maker? In any case, Edwards was finding it difficult to concentrate on his preparations. He was hounded everywhere, and when on one occasion he accepted an invitation to an event at a local nightclub, he found himself being photographed with some scantily clad showgirls, 'the Eaglettes'. He was made all sorts of publicity offers for appearing in advertisements, making records and televising his life story.

Not all of Edwards' competitors welcomed the attention he was receiving. The East Germans described him as a self-publicising clown, although it was clear to many that only a character like Edwards could elevate this sport to the world's attention, where it had been previously consigned to the inside back pages.

The weather relented and the 90-metre event eventually took place, with the gold medal going to 'the Flying Finn', Matti Nykanen. Edwards trailed in a distant last place, but in doing so smashed the British record. All things considered, it was an astonishing achievement.

After the Games

Edwards returned a hero and lived the life of a celebrity before sliding down life's 90-metre ramp into obscurity. He did indeed record songs – two of them were big hits in Finland – and made personal appearances around the globe. Sadly, the money dried up, bankrupting Edwards and forcing him to turn back to the day job.

He tried to resurrect his Olympic ski jumping career in the 1990s, but fell foul of a rule change, dubbed the 'Eddie the Eagle Rule', which bars from the Games those competitors who have had no success in World Cup competitions. It was a sad day for the Olympic spirit. Edwards was a pioneer who epitomised Baron Pierre de Coubertin's ideal: 'It is not the winning, but the taking part1.'

There's an urban myth that Edwards still holds the British record. His 73.5 metres was eventually overhauled in 1994 by James Lambert, who jumped 81m. This was further extended to 85m by the Canadian-born Brit Glen Pedersen in 2002. Record holders they may have been, but they will surely never be as famous as one Gloucestershire plasterer.

At the time of writing, a film of Edwards' life is in pre-production, with comedian Steve Coogan earmarked for the starring role. And on that bombshell...

1This is paraphrased. What de Coubertin actually said at a London banquet in 1908 was: "The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well."

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