Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards reflects on Winter Olympic experience
Catching up with Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards (cont.)
In the history of the Olympic Games, only one athlete has been mentioned by name during the opening or closing ceremony. That would be Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, a British plasterer turned ski jumper who earned global notoriety for his inept performance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Edwards finished last in the 70-meter competition, and 58th out of 59 in the 90-meter (he beat a French jumper who broke his leg in a bad fall), but he captured the public eye in a way that no third tier Olympic athlete ever had before.
After Calgary, a rule change that was informally dubbed the "Eddie the Eagle Rule" made it more difficult for marginal athletes to compete in the Olympics. As a result, Edwards unsuccessfully qualified for the three subsequent Games.
Edwards became something of a rock star in Britain after the Olympics (he even had a hit single in Finland), but he had to declare bankruptcy in 1992. He still does promotional work -- on one occasion a sponsor made him dress up like a chicken because they had no eagle costume -- but still works as a plasterer, just like his father and grandfather. A movie about his life has been in the works for years, but it's unclear if it will ever go into production.
SI.com caught up with Edwards in advance of the 25-year anniversary of his charmingly futile performance in Calgary to find out what became of the guy who is still the world's most beloved ski jumper. Meet the man who, in his words, took ski jumping from page 57 to page one, 25 years ago this month.
SI.com: Does it seem like 25 years have passed since you competed in Calgary?
Eddie Edwards: It doesn't; it's flown by in the blink of an eye. It seems like last week.
SI.com: What do people say to you when they recognize you?
Edwards: Most of the time it's a nice reaction. They say, "You made the Olympics for me," or "I love what you represented." There's only one or two people who say "You were a flop, you were a failure," or "you shouldn't have bothered."
SI.com: There was a common perception that you sort of just turned up at the Games and had no clue how to jump.
Edwards: Right, but I'd been working on it for about two years. I was still very much a beginner, but I didn't just start a week before the Games. I started in 1986, I was in Lake Placid racing, doing slalom, giant slalom and downhill skiing and I was trying to get to Calgary as a downhill racer but I ran out of money, so I looked around for something cheaper to do. It was cheaper to jump than to focus on alpine skiing, and Britain had alpine skiers, but we'd never had a jumper. So I thought, I'll give it a go and see what happens and then I met the qualifications to get into the Calgary Olympics.
SI.com: Does anyone remember who won the two events you competed in during the Calgary Games?
Edwards: I remember who won but no one else does unless they're from Finland or Norway or are very hot on ski jumping. But they do remember me. I think that's because I was a novelty. Like the Jamaican bobsledders, I was from a country with no snow, no training facility, no equipment, no history with the sport. But I had no idea I was going to get that much attention.
SI.com: Thanks to the so-called "Eddie the Eagle" rule, it's much harder for athletes to do what you did in the Olympics, isn't it?
Edwards: That's right. They've misinterpreted what happened and what I was about. They think I made a mockery of the sport. They thought I was just there to make a name for myself but that was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to be a ski jumper. I wanted to carry on for the '92, '94, '98 and '02 Olympics and get better each time, and show what Eddie "the Eagle" could do as a ski jumper. Unfortunately, I wasn't given the opportunity to do it.
SI.com: Is the rule unfair?
Edwards: I don't think there should be any rules at all. If you are the best athlete in your country in that sport, you should be able to compete if your country wants to send you. The Olympics is for everyone and sport is entertainment. People are just as entertained by the Eddie "the Eagle's" as anyone else.
SI.com: In the U.S., ski jumping isn't very popular. In fact, I'd say the popularity of the sport has declined since you were involved.
Edwards: Absolutely. Not only because I got kicked out of the sport but the Eddie "the Eagle" rule meant that a lot of countries couldn't send anyone to the Olympics. Because if you're not ranked in the top 50 in the world, or place in the top 50%, then a lot of countries can't send someone. I think the rule has done a lot of damage to the sport, much more damage than I could have supposedly ever done.
SI.com: When you returned from Calgary, did you have any idea how famous you'd become in Britain?
Edwards: I didn't. There were 20-30 policemen at Heathrow who said they were there to help me through the airport. I had no idea what was going on, until I realized there were about 10,000 people there to see me. It was chaos.
SI.com: I imagine you didn't go back to plastering work then, did you?
Edwards: No, I took a break for 10-15 years.
SI.com: But you kept trying to get back to the Olympics?
Edwards: I did. I kept competing in Europe, and I didn't retire until the beginning of 1998.
SI.com: Why do you think that the British Ski Federation wanted to keep you out of the sport, out of the Olympics?
Edwards: They thought I was making a mockery of the sport, bringing it into disrepute. I wasn't mocking the sport at all. I was having fun and that was how I promoted the sport. People liked the fact that I was different.
SI.com: When was the last time you jumped?
Edwards: In Salt Lake City in 2002, the week before the Olympics. It was for a newspaper that wanted to take some photos of me. It was great; it felt like I hadn't been away. I could still jump now if I wanted to.
SI.com: Are you working as a plasterer now?
Edwards: I still do construction and plastering and I build extensions. I come from a long line of plasterers. My brother is a plasterer, my dad was a plasterer, and my granddad was a plasterer. Even my great-granddad was a plasterer.
My building and plastering takes up much more time than my PR appearances, but the PR appearances pay much better. So the PR takes up about 5% of my time but gives me 70% of my income. Plastering used to be relatively lucrative work in the U.K. but at the moment with the recession, the building industry has been hit very hard, so a lot of tradespeople here are struggling.
SI.com: When you show up to do a job at someone's house do they recognize you?
Edwards: I don't really look like I used to, but some people recognize me. I get jobs from word of mouth, so some are already aware of who I am. But often times, I work for people, do the job and go home and they have no idea who I am.
SI.com: Tell me about your hit single in Finland after the Olympics.
Edwards: I did have a hit there, the top songwriter in Finland wrote a song about me and they invited me over to sing with him but he died the day I got there. He had a heart attack and the recording studio asked me if I'd sing the song by myself as a tribute to Irving Goodman, the singer/songwriter. So I learned the song and sung it phonetically in the recording studio and it reached #2 in the charts there. I toured Finland for 6 months singing this song. Even to this day, I have no idea what that song was about because it was all in Finnish and I never got the translation.
SI.com: Did you have any low points in your post-Olympic career?
Edwards: You had to be an amateur sportsman to compete in the Olympics, so I had to put all my money into a trust fund and I had three trustees to look after it, one of whom was the chairman of the British Ski Federation. They dealt with my trust fund very badly to the point where I didn't have enough money to pay my taxes and the taxman made me bankrupt. I sued them for mismanagement and negligence and we settled out of court. I got some of my money back but only about 30% of it. But it was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
SI.com: Tell us about your law career.
Edwards: I was working on a law degree at De Montfort University while I had the radio program [Edwards co-hosted a Sunday morning show with Trish Campbell on BBC Radio Gloucestershire]. I wanted something to do after I retired from ski jumping and I thought law would be a good job but I also did it because there were misconceptions about me in Calgary that I was a failure. So I wanted to do this to show that I wasn't just someone who turned up five minutes before the Olympics and didn't know what he was doing. I wanted to open people's eyes, let them know there was more to me than just being a ski jumper.
I just have one more course to do to become a lawyer, it's a one-year course that costs £20,000 and there's no guaranteed job at the end of it. So I'll wait a couple years and see if I'll pursue law or not.
Another benefit of law school was that I met my wife, Samantha, during the first year when I was studying for my law degree. And when I finished in 2003, we flew to Vegas and got married. It's my first and only marriage. Now we have two little girls, 8 and 5.
SI.com: How do you want to be remembered?
Edwards: I'd like to be remembered as a fighter. I went out there against all the odds, I ignored all the doubters and the people who said not to do it and I chased my dream.
SI.com: You don't look the way you used to though -- you had surgery on your jaw and laser surgery on your eyes?
Edwards: If I stayed the way I looked 25 years ago I think it would be very sad if I was still wearing those same glasses with the thick lenses. I had my jaw done for dental reasons -- all my teeth were wearing away at the back. People loved your glasses though. I couldn't stop them from fogging up when I competed; for three jumps out of the 10, I was completely blind because my glasses were so fogged up. I tried everything but nothing worked. I still have the pair I wore in Calgary.
SI.com: People can relate to someone who came in last better than someone who came in first, right?
Edwards: I think so. I came along and I was wearing thick glasses, I was heavier than the other guys. People could relate to me. I had no money, no training facilities, borrowed equipment and I was jumping against the heroes of ski jumping. My dream was to get to the Games, and I did that, so for me, it didn't matter that I came 58th. I haven't changed. I'm the same person I was 25 years ago.
Dave Seminara is a photojournalist and former diplomat based in Chicago