...he flies through the air with the greatest of speed...

‘Eddie the Eagle’ as he became known, caught the nation’s imagination back in 1988 when he became Britain’s first and only ski jumper to reach the Olympic Games. The bespectacled buffoon from Cheltenham jumped off incredibly steep slopes in the name of his country. Why? Because he wanted to compete in the Olympics. He was the sole competitor in the field of ski jumping; he had no rivals and became the obvious choice for the team. It was a pretty sure way to be an Olympian - choose an obscure sport with no other competitors in a country where there are no ski jumps, call yourself a ski jumper - and low and behold you make the team. Eddie was ‘Cool Runnings’ all over again.

But perhaps, despite what the International Olympic Committee thought, he was a true Olympian in the spirit of the Games - a real amateur. The IOC claimed that Eddie made a mockery of the Games; he was a one man comedy show. The other competitors argued that he was making a laughing stock of their sport. But maybe the real issue was that Eddy was the centre of attention for being the worst skier. It just wasn’t fair - good ski jumpers weren’t getting nearly the same publicity - the world’s media thought they were ‘boring’ in comparison.

Imagine this for a minute. Here was a man who had taught himself to ski jump in a country that has no real snow to speak of . There certainly weren’t any ski jumps and there was nobody with the knowledge to train him. He borrowed skis, he had no sponsors and trained every day by jumping over double decker buses. He had only skied for two years before he made it into the ‘Olympic team’ - other jumpers train for years, go through rigorous selection procedures before they finally make it to the Olympics to represent their country. You can see the other competitors’ annoyance. But Eddie had beaten all the odds just to get to the Olympics, even if his strategy was a little bizarre.

The plasterer from Cheltenham was born Michael Edwards on 5th December, 1963. His birthday ironically is still celebrated as a public holiday for casualty departments all over the world. He made his debut in the 1987 World Championships in Obertsdorf - he came 98th in a field of 98. When the Calgary Olympics came around, there was nobody who didn’t know about Eddie the Eagle. The country was mesmerised, waiting to see if this idiot would crash and kill himself as he leapt from a seriously great height. If you have ever stood at the top of a jump and looked down, it is a completely horrid sight. It is a sport where it is necessary to have your brain removed at birth before you even begin training. So it should not be forgotten that Eddy had great courage, or perhaps it was just sheer stupidity. He had grown up wanting to be a stunt-man in the movies, loved skiing and decided to combine his two passions.

Eddie very quickly became the darling of the media - he was the master of self promotion, not deterred by the fact that the world saw him as Mr Magoo on skis. His glasses were thick, he was awkward, his hair was thinning and weighing in at 180 pounds, he was 20 pounds heavier than the average jumper. When you meet him however, it’s easy to see why he was so popular. He’s funny, sarcastic, knowledgeable and incredibly driven. Driven and Eddie the Eagle don’t seem like words that are synonymous with each other, but to train to the level that he did proves that he is one of the most dedicated, enthusiastic skiers this country has ever produced. He wanted to be taken seriously - to be known as a respectably competent ski jumper, if not actually a good one. But all we did was laugh at him. Even the President of the USA stopped his conference to watch Eddie jump, confident that he would crash in front of the world. But Eddie didn’t crash, he didn’t win either, but at least he finished in one piece.

Eddie’s downfall came when he waved to the world and said ‘Hello Mum, it’s me’ just before he took his second jump. He’d already achieved what he went to Calgary to do, to ski in the Olympics for his country. The second jump was purely for enjoyment. In Eddie’s eyes he’d already won. But to his critics, those words ridiculed the whole concept of what the Games stood for - sporting excellence, which even he admits is not a word that could be used to describe him.

The high point of Eddie’s career was when the President of the Games gave his closing speech. He said: ‘at this Olympic Games some competitors have won gold and some have broken records, and one has even flown like an eagle.’ At that moment, 100,000 people in the stadium got up and roared ‘Eddie, Eddie.’ It was the first time in the history of the Games that an individual athlete had been mentioned in the closing speech.

Whatever we think of Eddie the Eagle’s exploits, he is a man to be admired if only for his guts at having had a go at such a high level. The IOC have since introduced a new rule to prevent any other buffoons getting similar ideas. Competitors now have to jump a certain length before they can represent their country in the Games. It’s called the ‘Eagle Rule.’ Eddie’s jumps will always be remembered; twelve years on he is still Britain’s only ever ski jumper.

What happened to Eddie the Eagle?

He made lots of money as the media attention around him grew. He never made sports personality of the year; Steve Davies was given the award instead. There was talk of a Hollywood movie about his antics on the slopes which sadly didn’t come to anything. He leapt over double-decker buses for charity, opened ski shops, supermarkets and for a couple of years remained the nation’s hero. But then like so many heroes before him, he frittered away his money and ended up on the dole.

However, he told us recently that he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of competing in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City but naturally his entry is subject to sponsorship. Maybe we’ll see him at the next Olympics, but somehow I don’t think so. He has grown up a little; he no longer wants to be a stunt-man in Hollywood and instead he is studying law. The future for Eddie is more likely to be as a legal eagle rather than a leaping, flying one.