A quarter century ago British plasterer-turned-ski jumper Michael Edwards made a name for himself—Eddie the Eagle—by not skiing or jumping very well at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Short on talent but long on panache and derring-do, he had no illusions about his ability, no dreams of gold or silver or even bronze. Blinking myopically behind the bottle glass of his pink-and-white-rimmed glasses, he told the press: “In my case, there are only two kinds of hope—Bob Hope and no hope.”
Undeterred, Edwards sluiced on. Wearing six pairs of socks inside hand-me-down ski boots, he stepped onto the slopes, pushed off down the steep ramp and rag-dolled through the air. When he touched down, broadcasters chorused: “The Eagle has landed!” By taking a huge leap of faith, Edwards captured the world’s imagination and achieved the sort of renown that can only come overnight.
On this particular afternoon, a crowd of roughly three has massed in the driveway of Edwards’ duplex, where the Eagle has donned old ski togs. He shields his eyes from the low, fierce English sun and holds forth on his brilliant career.
“When I started competing, I was so broke that I had to tie my helmet with a piece of string,” he says. “On one jump the string snapped, and my helmet carried on farther than I did. I may have been the first ski jumper ever beaten by his gear.”
An onlooker asks: “How do you like to be called? Eddie Edwards? Eddie the Eagle? Mr. Eagle?”
“Doesn’t matter,” says Edwards, smiling indulgently. “Over the past 25 years, I’ve been called all sorts of things.”
Here are a few: Fast Eddie. Slow Eddie. Crazy Eddie. Unsteady Eddie. The Flying Plasterer. Mr. Magoo on Skis. Inspector Clouseau on Skis. The Abominable Snowman. The Champion of the Underdog. The Unconquering Hero. A Lovable Loser. A Half-Blind Clot Having a Bloody Good Laugh. The Quintessential British Sportsman.
Edwards, after all, did what Englishmen do surpassingly well—coming in gloriously, irretrievably and spectacularly last. Of the 58 jumpers in the 70-meter event, he just missed being 59th. He also brought up the rear at 90 meters, though technically he aced out three jumpers who were scratched—one of whom, a Frenchman, failed to show because he had broken a leg on a practice run the day before.
The Eagle’s career was not an unfettered ascent, or, for that matter, descent. He grew up in working-class Cheltenham, where his mother worked at an aluminum-door factory; and his father, his father’s father and his father’s father’s father were all plasterers. Eddie was a mere eaglet of 13 when he first strapped on skis during a school trip to Italy. Within four years he was racing with the British national team. Unable to afford lift tickets, he switched to the cheaper sport of ski jumping. During the summer of 1986, eighteen months before the Olympics, the 22-year-old resolved to take time off from plastering and try his luck and pluck against the world’s top jumpers.
He had no money, no coach, no equipment and no team—England had never competed in the event. Driven only by determination, he slept in his mum’s Cavalier, grubbed food out of garbage cans and once even camped out in a Finnish mental hospital. From shoveling snow to scrubbing floors, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to jump more. Nor was there anything that could stop him from jumping: Following one botched landing, he continued with his head tied up in a pillowcase toothache-fashion to keep a broken jaw in place.
His distances improved. Slightly. Though he shattered the unofficial British 70-meter record, it was noted that the old mark, set in the 1920s, could have been calculated with a standard tailor’s tape measure, and that the tailor himself could have leapt it.
By the time Edwards arrived in Calgary—where the Italian team gave him a new helmet and the Austrians provided his skis—he was legendary as the jumper who made it look difficult. Others flew. Only the Eagle could launch off a mountain and plummet like a dead parrot. “I was a true amateur and embodied what the Olympic spirit is all about,” he says. “To me, competing was all that mattered. Americans are very much ‘Win! Win! Win!’ In England, we don’t give a fig whether you win. It’s great if you do, but we appreciate those who don’t. The failures are the people who never get off their bums. Anyone who has a go is a success.”
The Eagle, now 50, hasn’t soared far from the nest. He lives quietly in the South Cotswolds village of Woodchester—14 miles, as the crow flies, from his native Cheltenham. He shares a modest, debris-filled home with his wife, Samantha, and their daughters Ottilie and Honey. “People who tuned in to the ’88 Winter Olympics saw me grinning and joking,” he chirps from his living room couch. “They thought, He’s laughing, he’s human.” When Edwards laughs, which he often does, he snorts through his nose. A goofy grin still lights up his bucolic face, but his Guinness glasses have been replaced by studious specs, and his great slope of a chin has been bobbed. London’s Daily Mail wrote that Edwards “has had more plastic surgery than a Nazi war criminal.”
After Calgary, Edwards didn’t do badly. There was an appearance on The Tonight Show, a huge non-victory parade in Cheltenham and a sponsorship deal with Eagle Airlines. There were Eddie the Eagle T-shirts, caps, pins and key chains. The Monster Raving Loony Party, a beyond-the-fringe political group, named Edwards its Minister for Butter Mountains. “Butter mountains” is the English term for the heaps of surplus butter stored in European countries to maintain artificial price supports. “The Loonies proposed to turn the Continent’s butter mountains into ski slopes,” Edwards explains. His lone initiative: Exempt ski jumpers from paying taxes.
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.