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Ski-Jumper “Eddie the Eagle”

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Michael Edwards was a humble British plasterer who wanted to be an Olympic athlete. Without money, sponsorship, and, it has to be said, much talent, he made it onto the British team as a ski jumper for the 1988 Calgary Olympics. As it turned out, Edwards became the star of the event and was given the nickname Eddie the Eagle.

Eddie the Eagle at Calgary.

Eddie the Eagle at Calgary.

Ski-Jumping Technique

Norwegians gave the world ski-jumping with a competition in 1805, won by Olaf Rye with a jump of 9.5 metres. Over time, distances lengthened and different techniques were tried.

There was a spell when jumpers held their arms out in front, then the arms were moved to be alongside the body with the skis parallel. Somewhere over the years, there was a period when jumpers flapped their arms about; that didn't work.

Ski hills became longer and steeper and everybody settled on the V-style of today.

The classic V-shape style.

The classic V-shape style.

First comes the slide down the hill in a crouch position to minimize wind resistance and increase speed. Skiers hit the end of the ramp at about 90 km/h (56 mph). This is where the jump comes in.

At the point of take off, the jumper springs into an upright position and leans out over the skis. The skis themselves are flared out into a V-shape and the arms are held to the side. In essence, the ski-jumper creates a profile similar to that of a glider's wings and uses the upward rush of air to imitate flight.

Then, competitors have to think about something called in German kritisch, it means “critical” and marks the landing point, known as the K-Line. Skiers gain marks for every metre they land beyond the K-line and have marks deducted for landing behind the K-line. They also are judged on how they maintain their position while in flight.

In March 2017, Stefan Kraft of Austria set the current world record with a jump of 254 m (833 ft), but he had a rather inelegant crash-landing.

It takes courage and skill to tackle the Holmenkollen ski jump in Norway.

It takes courage and skill to tackle the Holmenkollen ski jump in Norway.

Eddie the Eagle Takes up Ski Jumping

Michael Edwards was already a competent downhill skier but he wasn't good enough to make the British team so he thought he would try ski-jumping. Nobody from the U.K. had competed in the sport since 1928, so there wasn't going to be much competition to get a place on the squad.

Through connections, Eddie was invited to train with the Finnish team, but he had no money so his hosts arranged for him to stay in a mental hospital.

During the winter season of 1986/87 he competed in ski-jumping events. He drove around the European venues, living in a car he borrowed from his mother. He picked up menial odd jobs where he could and occasionally took up dumpster diving for food.

He had several other handicaps: thick glasses that fogged up at altitude, inadequate equipment, no money, and, to use a technical term, little skill. But, his fellow competitors helped out. The Italians gave him a helmet to replace the one he was using that was held on, occasionally, by a length of string. The Austrians replaced his skis.

He even managed to beat some jumpers that were even more inept than he was. Although, as noted by Sports Illustrated writer Franz Kidz “Following one botched landing, he continued with his head tied up in a pillowcase toothache-fashion to keep a broken jaw in place.” He couldn't afford medical treatment.

He set himself the goal of getting to the Calgary Olympics. To do so, he had to meet the British Ski Federation (BSF) standard of a successful 70-metre jump. He clocked in with 69.5 metres and the BSF said good enough. Eddie the Eagle was off to Canada.

“Where is it written that the Olympics are only for winners?”

— Eddie the Eagle

The Calgary Olympics

When Eddie arrived in Calgary he was treated like a gift by the media. Jaded by the one-game-at-a-time and giving-it-110-percent stock answers of athletes Eddie was refreshingly candid. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation he had more media interview requests than any other athlete at the games.

He told the assembled press, “In my case, there are only two kinds of hope—Bob Hope and no hope.” Given the obstacles he had overcome to get to the games he said for him “taking part was my gold medal.” He was a complete amateur and wasn't that supposed to be the credo of the Olympic movement?

Then, of course, it came time to jump. He wore second-hand ski boots and needed six pairs of socks to make them somewhere near a fit. His style in the air did not look like an eagle soaring, it was more reminiscent of a wounded duck.

In the 70-metre, Eddie plummeted to 61 metres and last place. In the 90-metre jump, he hit a high of 71 metres and again finished last. However, in the longer jump, technically he beat three other skiers who withdrew from the competition.

The winner of both jumps, whose name is likely forgotten outside his native Finland, was Matti Nykänen; his jumps were 89.5 metres and 118.5 metres respectively.

But, the spectators loved Eddie. Some called him Mr. Magoo on Skis, to others he was the Flying Plasterer, but it was Eddie the Eagle that stuck.

Frank King was President of the Games Organizing Committee. In a speech at the closing ceremony he told the athletes “You have broken world records and you have established personal bests. Some of you have even soared like an eagle.” At which the throng chanted “Eddie. Eddie. Eddie.”

Eddie the Eagle's—um—Style

The Eddie the Eagle Rule

Following his star turn on the ski hill, Eddie did well. There were sponsorship deals, T-shirts, motivational talks, celebratory appearances, and still a bit of plastering when he could fit it in. Some of these gigs are still bringing in coin in his native England more than 30 years later.

But, not everybody enjoyed the Eddie's performance. The International Olympic Committee changed the rules to ensure that nobody like Eddie the Eagle could compete and entertain the crowds again. Athletes hoping to compete in Olympic ski jumping must have already proven they are among the top echelons of the sport.

Certainly, Eddie the Eagle's adventures were good for a few giggles but, as Steven Pye commented in The Guardian, he was “a hero who sacrificed a lot to live the dream: an athlete who competed with a smile on his face, and deservedly reaped the rewards of his unexpected fame while he could.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Eddie reckons he earned about £1.5 million following his exploits at the Calgary Olympics. The money was put into a trust fund that was so badly managed that Eddie filed for bankruptcy in 1992. He sued and received £100,000.
  • The Jamaican bobsled team rivalled Eddie the Eagle for popularity at the Calgary Olympics. They crashed spectacularly on their third run and did not attempt of fourth trip down the track. But, members of the team were mobbed by adoring fans wherever they went.
  • In the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Eric “The Eel” Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea set a new record for the slowest 100-metre freestyle swim at one minute 52.72 seconds. Pieter van den Hoogenband won the event in a time of 48.30 seconds.

Sources

  • “Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards: 'It Was while I Was in a Mental Hospital I Heard I Was in the Olympic Team.' ” Brian Viner, The Independent, December 8, 2008.
  • “Falling with Style: The Science of Ski Jumping.” Hannah Osborn, Smithsonian Science Education Center, undated.
  • “Whatever Happened to Eddie the Eagle, Britain’s Most Lovable Ski Jumper?” Franz Lidz, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2014,
  • “Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards Wins over Fans at 1988 Winter Olympics.” Valerie Pringle, CBC, February 24 1988.
  • “Reappraising Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards.” Steven Pye, The Guardian, February 4, 2014.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 25, 2021:

Ruppert, Eddie the eagle is a sort of hero. Thanks for making me jiggle.

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