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."
March 14, 1988
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.
By the time he left Calgary for home, the Eagle had an agent named Simon Platz lined up in London, and he was going to need him. It was another measure of the intensity of the devotion of Edwards's following in England that few in the throng waiting to greet him at Heathrow last Tuesday seemed to notice members of the rock band U2 walking by. Meanwhile, Guy Ainsworth paced in the terminal in agitation. He works for Vladivar vodka, whose label features an eagle. Ainsworth claimed he had made a verbal agreement by phone with Edwards while the latter was in Calgary. "We were first off the block," he said to anyone willing to listen. "We got him fixed for our '89 calendar already." Near Ainsworth was a woman in a drab raincoat. As soon as the Eagle appeared, she was to whip off the coat, revealing a barely existent tangerine-colored costume, and grab him while holding aloft a banner proclaiming FIONA VLADIVAR WELCOMES EDDIE.
"Try anything like that 'ere, love," said a cop, getting wind of the scheme, "and we'll 'ave you inside." The forlorn Fiona, whose real name was Karen Tett, fell back into the crowd just as Edwards's thick pink glasses and perpetually bemused expression came into view.
"I expected a bit, but not all this," he said, under siege by reporters in the airport press room. He also said: "I need a bath." And then: "I'm too busy for marriage. I've got a house to finish plastering. It's nice and restful, plastering. And I proved them wrong, didn't I? I was safe enough to jump." It all got written down. And soon it was time for the Eagle to hasten to a recording studio to sing, with a little backing, a song called Fly, Eddie, Fly (sample lyric: 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), written by Mort Shuman, whose previous credits include the theme song from the Elvis Presley movie Viva Las Vegas. But just before he departed Heathrow, Edwards got off one of his better foot-in-mouth efforts. "As a ski jumper," he said, "I want to get from first to last as soon as I can! Uh, I mean...."
In less than 48 hours the real homecoming was going to take place—in Cheltenham, the town in the Cotswolds where Eddie was born and raised, a town famous for its faded gentility. It flourished for a time in the 18th century as a watering place, but now it's known for its numerous retired army officers and for its big horse racing meeting—which includes prestigious steeplechase and hurdle events. The meeting is held each year on the days surrounding St. Patrick's Day and attracts thousands of Irish racegoers.
Thus, most of Cheltenham's sports heroes have been four-legged ones, and you would have to go way back for a real bipedal legend: Fred Archer, a jockey born in 1857. Archer had 2,748 winners in 8,084 rides but died by his own hand at 29, a winner, but a loser, too.
Cheltenham, one could argue, specializes in losers. On the Promenade, the main street, there's a statue to another Eddie, Dr. Edward Wilson, who died on the Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1912; that's the one that reached the pole only to find Roald Amundsen's Norwegian flag flying there. This year, moreover, the city is celebrating the bicentennial of its visit by King George III, and it would be hard to find a bigger loser than he was.
All the same, it was clear in town on the eve of the Eagle's return that he wasn't thought of as a loser at all. That evening he appeared on the BBC's The Wogan Show, and some of the regulars in the Prince of Wales pub were watching. They didn't think of him as a joke, even though this is a tough old horse-racing bar and the big drink is hard cider imbibed from china mugs.
Ian Frazer, a 40-year-old carpenter, hoisted his and said, "What Eddie's got is bottle, see?" (Bottle is slang for guts.) "He's just been doing it for two years. No money, no training. Some of those others, they've been into it for 20 years. How'd you like to stand on top of something as high as St. Paul's Cathedral, then jump?"
And then Edwards came on the telly. The Wogan Show had him fly down from the ceiling on a wire—a la Peter Pan—wearing his skis. After that, the chatter was predictable enough—even to the Eagle's shooting himself in the foot again. Will success spoil him? asked the commentator. "Don't worry; my feet are firmly on the ground," said Edwards winningly. A roar of laughter shook the Prince of Wales. "He can't help it if he looks helpless and just a bit dim," somebody there said.
Next morning, Thursday, was the big moment; somebody said that 34 TV crews would be on hand in Cheltenham to record it. The parade was set to start in front of the Landsbury pub, where two big open-sided, roofless brewers' vans were waiting to carry Eddie and the cameras through the city. The Edwards family pulled up in a black Bentley; sister Liz emerged wearing a sweater with I AM EDDIE'S SISTER across the front. Dad said he was short a plasterer and could use Eddie for a week or two.
Eddie and Platz arrived in a white Rolls-Royce. It took 10 minutes to get the Eagle from car to van in the thrusting crowd, but eventually he was on his way. "Eddie is a hero!" kids sang to a conga beat, and a girl ran out to him with a posy. Most of Cheltenham was lying in ambush along the Promenade, where Mayor Gil Wakeley stood resplendent in scarlet and ermine, gold-chained, lace-ruffled. In the town hall he made a presentation, handing Eddie a box. Later the Eagle was asked what the loot was. "Four whiskey glasses with a picture of the House of Commons on them," he said. "Cheltenham doesn't throw money around."
This weekend Edwards plans to return to competition, at the 66th Puijo Winter Games outside Kuopio, Finland. And before long he hopes that people will see him as more than a small joke. This summer he will train with the U.S. team in Lake Placid—coach Greg Windsperger is taking him under his wing. And with sponsors lining up, he won't be living on starvation rations.
For all the buffoonery, Edwards believes he may have done the world a little good. "I know I'm just Eddie Edwards the plasterer, and sport is so professional now. But haven't I brought something back to Olympic sport? Like, what did they used to call it? Ah, yes. Uh, taking part."