Throwback: Eddie the Eagle steals the show in Calgary

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February 14, 1988 (or February 23, 1988 as he competed in two competitions)

A fairly unassuming plasterer from the West Country in England became one of the unlikely stars – in fact, nearly the poster boy – of the Olympic Winter Games in Calgary in 1988.

24-year-old Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards (his given name is Michael Edwards) entered the ski jump competition knowing that he had no chance of medaling in the event, joking that “In my case, there are only two kinds of hope, Bob Hope and no hope.”

 

That Edwards, whose self-deprecating personality, fogged up bottle-shaped glasses and tied on helmet, won over millions of Olympic viewers with his underdog story, was even allowed to compete in the Games seemed like a anomaly.

An avid skier as a teenager, Edwards raced with the British national team at 17, but financial concerns limited his ability to afford the costs of training for Alpine skiing. During the summer of 1986, Edwards decided to try his hand at a skiing discipline with a much lower barrier to Olympic entry.

Since Great Britain had never had an Olympic ski jumper, Edwards was able to improve just enough to barely land a qualifying time after jumping a British record 68 meters during a competition in Switzerland in 1986. Still barely scraping by, Edwards found out that he qualified for Calgary while staying at a Finnish mental hospital, where a fellow ski jumper who worked there arranged for Edwards to stay for one pound per night.

As Edwards continued to compete in World Cup events heading into the 1988 Winter Games (and finish last in each one), his outsized personality continued to gain attention so that by the time he arrived at the Olympics, he had a Canadian fan club and TV crew welcoming “Eddie the Eagle” to Calgary. The nickname would stick.

Before his first Olympic competition, Edwards held court with the media, asking “Where is it written that the Olympics are only for winners?”

Edwards debuted in the 70m competition (men’s normal hill competition) on February 14, 1988, an event headlined by Finland’s Matti Nykanen, who is considered to be the greatest ski jumper of all time. With 46,000 people in attendance, Edwards traveled 55 meters on both of his attempts, a full 16 meters behind his closest competitor. His total combined score (69.2) placed him 58th out of 58 competitiors and gave him half as many points as the 57th place competitor Bernat Sola of Spain. Nykanen won his second straight gold medal in the event but Edwards received as loud of an ovation as any of his competitors.

As Edwards prepared to compete in the 90m final (men’s large hill competition), event directors asked British officials to withdraw Edwards from the event. They declined. He was bombarded at every move by press and fans, with a private family dinner at a club the night before turning into a public appearance complete with showgirls.

Edwards competed in the 90m final and jumped a personal best (and British record) 71 meters, while still finishing dead last in the competition. He appeared with Burt Reynolds on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson the next night and returned to Calgary for the closing ceremony, where he was personally acknowledged in a speech by chief executive Frank King.

However, Edwards’ efforts were not universally welcomed, as the IOC passed a rule in 1990 stating that a competitor had to be in the top 30 per cent of international competitors, or the top 50, whichever was fewer. His Olympic career was over.

Edwards’ story eventually became a movie with the 2016 film Eddie the Eagle and in March 2017 the 53-year-old returned to soar in Calgary, landing two attempts  each off the 18, 38 and 70-meter jump.

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