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(Jude Edginton / Redux Pictures)

Whatever Happened to Eddie the Eagle, Britain’s Most Lovable Ski Jumper?

Twenty-six years after he (sort of) took to the air at the Olympics, Michael Edwards soars

He threw himself into all sorts of celebrity odd jobs with the same abandon that made him hurl himself off 350-foot platforms. Though he was not much of a ski jumper, he was unrivaled at opening shopping centers, judging beauty pageants and getting shot out of circus cannons. The Devon tourism bureau paid him to appear in an eagle costume. Unfortunately, none could be found, so Edwards graciously consented to wear a chicken suit. The darling of the Calgary slopes spent the afternoon clucking and scratching in a parking lot.

He made an easy transition from poultry to pop star, recording two ballads that celebrated his Olympian feats. The first, “Fly Eddie Fly,” was written by “Viva Las Vegas” lyricist Mort Shuman: The East Germans they got angry / They said I was a clown / But all they want is winning / And they do it with a frown.

The follow-up single, “Mun Nimeni On Eetu” (“My Name Is Eddie”), was composed in Finnish by the protest singer Antti Yrjo Hammarberg, better known as Irwin Goodman. The Eagle winged his way to Finland to accompany Goodman onstage. “The moment I entered my hotel room, the phone rang,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, Irwin had died of a heart attack that afternoon. As a tribute, his record company wanted me to sing ‘Mun Nimeni On Eetu’ solo. So I learned the song, phonetically, and a few hours later appeared on live TV, warbling in Finnish, despite the fact that I didn’t understand a word of the language.” He still has no idea what the song is about.

“Mun Nimeni On Eetu” reached number two on the Finnish pop charts and Edwards went on tour. At the height of Eaglemania, he sang before 70,000 at a rock festival near Helsinki. “I was backed by a heavy metal band called the Raggers,” he reports. “Every member looked like a serial killer.”

Fame brought with it not just fortune, but an entire entourage of managers, flunkies and would-be wives. The suitors came and went—mostly with tabloid headlines in their wake: “Why Eddie Dumped Me” and “Eddie and Me Did It 16 Times a Night.”
The money—more than $1 million—came and went, too. Edwards’ appearance fees were stashed in a trust fund set up to protect his amateur status. When the trust went bust in 1991, Edwards declared bankruptcy and sued the trustees for mismanagement. Eventually, he won a settlement and pocketed around £100,000. “Oh well,” he sighs. “That’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick!”

The legal face-off inspired Edwards to become a lawyer. Pondering career possibilities from his Woodchester sofa, he says, “I might consider sports law. What athlete wouldn’t want to hire a legal eagle?” He laughs loudly and gleefully at this, hugging his knees and rocking back and forth.

Edwards regularly travels on cruise ships, entertaining passengers with motivational speeches and his inimitable winter’s tale. Lately, he’s reinvented himself as a contestant on reality TV, reaching the finals of “Let’s Dance for Sport Relief” on BBC One, and actually winning a celebrity water sports competition. “Finally, something I’m good at!” he cracks.

Despite carrying a torch in the pre-Olympic relay at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Edwards is something of a pariah in the ski jumping world. In 1990, the International Olympic Committee imposed a minimum qualifying distance for all World Cup and Olympic ski jumpers. “Basically, I was banned,” says Edwards. “They resented how popular I was.”

His popularity didn’t extend to fellow jumpers. Some sent him hate mail. “You bastard,” began one letter. “I’ve trained 20 years to get to the f------ Olympics. You’ve come and stolen all the limelight. Go off and die.” Edwards shrugs off the criticism. “Many felt I had made a mockery of the sport,” Edwards says. “I didn’t. I was the best—albeit the only—jumper my country had. I had a right to be there.”

Edwards last competed on the World Cup circuit in 1989; last month he leapt—for the sheer joy of it—at a “Beat the Eagle” juniors competition in Bavaria. Other British birdbrains have tried to follow in his flight path: Brian the Budgie, Simon the Seagull, Vinnie the Vulture... “None lasted more than six months,” says the Eagle. “They didn’t realize how much effort ski jumping entails.”

The British public remains in Edwards’ thrall. “On the street, I’ll hear, ‘You made the Olympics for me,’ or ‘I love what you represented.’ Only occasionally is it, ‘You were a flop, an also-ran, a loser.’”

Bouncing on his sofa, he makes a rare foray into introspection. “I want my life to move on. On the other hand, I can’t say no to offers, not when I’m getting £50,000 a year to be Eddie the Eagle.” Again he rocks back and forth, hugging his knees—and laughs and laughs and laughs.

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About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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