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Clive Gammon
March 14, 1988
Ski jumper Eddie Edwards, England's improbable Olympic hero, received a sterling welcome home from his countrymen
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March 14, 1988

The Eagle Has Landed

Ski jumper Eddie Edwards, England's improbable Olympic hero, received a sterling welcome home from his countrymen

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The Tumultuous three-day homecoming had finally come to an end, and Michael (Eddie the Eagle) Edwards, the flying plasterer, could relax. Sequestered by his newly acquired agent in a West London hideaway, Edwards—the utterly unlikely folk hero of the Calgary Olympics, the Inspector Clouseau of ski jumping—spoke of a hitherto unrevealed ambition. "That James Bond movie?" he said. "The one where Bond skis off a cliff, shucks his skis and parachutes to the ground? That's for me. That's what I want to be. A stuntman in a Bond movie. I was speaking to my friend Burt Reynolds, and he said there were plenty of openings [for stuntmen] and to give him a call because he knew a lot of people in the business. I'd prefer doing ski stunts, but I wouldn't mind car stunts or fighting. Or falling off burning buildings. I quite like that sort of thing."

The movie in question, The Spy Who Loved Me, came out in 1977 when Edwards was a mere eaglet of 14—though even by then he was a candidate for the endangered species list. As a 10-year-old kamikaze-style soccer goalie, who fearlessly dived at the cleated boots of oncoming forwards, he damaged the cartilage in his left knee and spent the next three years in plaster casts. "That wasn't my worst accident, though," he said. "That came in Italy, a place called Colle di Tenda, where I was working for a travel company. The local champ was a ski instructor named Nino Viale. I got caught up in a head-to-head downhill race with him, the prize being a date with this very beautiful girl, June.

"Coming down to the bottom of the hill there was this lefthand bend. Nino was slightly in front of me, so I took the bend sharpish, 70 miles an hour and flying. I hit him, then some trees, then a rock. I was in traction for six days, I'd broken my neck, broken my back and paralyzed my shoulder...."

And June? "She married Nino. They have a little girl, 18 months old now."

Ah, Eddie, the perennial loser with a smile, the man who in less than three weeks went from being a small joke at the Calgary Games to a sports figure getting the kind of welcome home reserved for conquering heroes—50 cameramen and hundreds of well-wishers at London's Heathrow Airport, the biggest such crowd, so the cops said, since Madonna had last passed that way.

Even before Day 2 of the Olympics, the day he finished a resounding 58th and last in the 70-meter ski jumping event, Edwards had begun to emerge as a cult figure. His suitcase had burst open on the airport carousel when he arrived in Calgary. He had been refused admission to his first-ever press conference because he didn't have the right credentials. The rest of the British Olympic team had to look for him when he lost his way in the Olympic Village. He had missed two of his training jumps because he didn't get his skis waxed in time. And innocently—it had to have been innocently—he began telling stories about himself that had people falling down laughing. Like the one about the night he spent in a Finnish psychiatric hospital near where he was training because it cost less than $2 a night. Or how, with his funds running low, he had lived for a week on bread and jam while training in Colorado with the U.S. ski jumping team, which had virtually adopted him. Or the way the Italians had fixed him up with a helmet, the Germans with a ski suit, the Austrians with skis.

Meanwhile, back home in England, Central TV, a regional broadcaster, had dug up some old footage of the Eagle from when he first began jumping off 70-meter hills, showing him as small, bewildered and painfully myopic. In one segment he uttered the words that made his country fall in love with him: "When I looked from the top of the jump, I was so frightened that my bum shriveled up like a prune."

Some of those who watched the Eagle in the 70-meter event at Calgary became a little frightened themselves. The International Ski Federation had wanted to ban him—for his own good, it said—from the 90-meter competition. ( Edwards did compete and finished 55th—and last.) But some disapproved of his jumping for other reasons. Junge Welt, East Germany's biggest newspaper, was particularly scornful, thundering, "What would become of the Olympic Games if the Eddie Edwardses of the world took their place in every discipline and so discredited the achievements of all those who far outstripped them in ability?"

Well, the Games' fate might have been in doubt, but Edwards's wasn't, not with the $65,000 the London Daily Mail reportedly paid him for his story. By then, of course, whole packs of agents smelled raw meat. "I was conned right, left and center," Edwards said. The most notable instance, he thought, occurred when he naively accepted a dinner invitation to a Calgary motel and found himself on stage with the Eaglettes dancers (known just a few weeks earlier as the Red, White and Hots).

At about this time Edwards's fledgling media career took wing with a quick trip to Los Angeles to appear on The Tonight Show. Growing more confident by the moment, he artfully dodged Johnny Carson's jibes and pointed out that he was the holder of the British ski jumping record—without bothering to mention that he was Britain's only ski jumper. He met Reynolds on the show, and his dreams of a movie career soared.

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