Airs Not Graces | The Eddie the Eagle Interview

Britain's most famous ski jumper, Eddie the Eagle, opens up about the way it really was...

Words by Sam Haddad | Photos from the film Eddie the Eagle/Lionsgate

I’m old enough to remember the exploits of Eddie the Eagle first hand. I can’t picture watching Team GB’s first and only ski jumper come last at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary but his court jester narrative had certainly trickled down to the school playground to the extent that we wrote a rap celebrating his haplessness.

“I’m a ski jumper in a supersonic class/When I fly off a jump I fall straight on my ass…” went a couple of lines. For my overriding memory of Eddie the Eagle back then was that he was incredibly crap, triumphantly so, with all his goofing around on TV simply reinforcing that fact.

“My overriding memory of Eddie the Eagle back then was that he was incredibly crap, triumphantly so…”

But looking back today, having watched the Hollywood biopic about his life, which is now in cinemas, and set to be the feel-good film of the year, I can’t believe how wrong I was. Not to mention how much of the bigger picture I’d missed. Most notably the class dimension that ran through his career and how working class Michael “Eddie” Edwards was at a time when snowsports was dominated by upper class, or at most middle class, athletes. As in many ways it still is.

The film, which has a great 80s soundtrack and enjoyable zeitgeisty flourishes, was directed by Dexter Fletcher and produced by Matthew Vaughn with Taron Egerton starring as Eddie the Eagle and an amazing Christopher Walken cameo.

It shows him sleeping in broom cupboards, picked on by posh athletes and his attempts to qualify for the Calgary Winter Olympics constantly thwarted by snooty officials at the British Olympic Association. I spoke to Eddie on the phone last week and asked him how accurate those scenes were.

“Most of the athletes were great but one or two were a bit snooty… their parents probably owned a chateau or chalet in Val d’Isere so they could be out there all the time.”

He said: “Most of the athletes were great but one or two were a bit snooty as the only reason they could ski so well was because they had rich parents and they could afford to. Their parents probably owned a chateau or chalet in Val d’Isere so they could be out there all the time.”

“Whereas those of us who came from the UK only had our Gloucester Dry Slope Ski Centre or Pontypool or Hill End or whatever. But it was the officials who were the most difficult the [British] Ski Federation, the BOA they were very difficult…”

“They seemed to have the impression they ran British skiing but weren’t responsible for promoting British skiing, and they certainly had backwards ideas on how best to promote skiing and ski jumping. It was an old boys’ club very much like it is now, but to get these things changed is very difficult.”

For the powers that be Eddie the Eagle was an embarrassment. And that can’t just be because he wasn’t a medal contender because aside from Alain Baxter, when have we ever had medal contenders in Alpine sports? Well, before the current generation of snowboarders that is.

Not many people know that Eddie the Eagle was actually a very good downhill skier and British squad member before he switched to ski jumping. He told me: “It really wasn’t written about at all. Most of the press ignored that fact.” The media at the time of the Calgary Games liked the idea of him being rubbish at skiing, as it fitted the plucky loser narrative better.

He said: “At Calgary it looked like I couldn’t ski and [the press] went along with that, as much as I tried to correct them. They liked the idea of me being a novice and not very good. Not a lot of people know that I was a very good skier but I didn’t mind.”

“Not a lot of people know that I was a very good skier but I didn’t mind.”

Eddie had learnt to ski at 13 on a school trip to Italy. He then spent his teens at Gloucester Dry Ski Slope Centre before heading off to do seasons in Italy. In the era of Martin and Graham Bell competition was tight for Team GB Alpine skiing places and Eddie was racing on the North American Ski Circuit in Lake Placid, upstate New York to try and pick up FIS points when he ran out of money.

He says: “As a very poor British athlete that was quite a common occurrence for me. Then I saw the ski jumps and realised we had lots of downhill skiers, cross country skiers, biathlon skiers but we’d never had a jumper so I thought well I’ll give it a go see what happens.”

In the film he actually first jumps in Garmisch, which becomes his training base throughout to keep things simple for the viewer even though he “jumped all over the place.” And Hugh Jackman plays his coach.

He says: “Hugh Jackman’s character was all my coaches rolled into one as I didn’t have one coach, I couldn’t afford to have one regular coach, I had about 20-30 coaches over my career getting to Calgary but that would have been too confusing in a film all those different coaches so we thought it was better to roll them into one person.”

Watching the run-in for the jumps in the film and later on YouTube videos of Eddie back in the day, I’m struck by how gnarly they are. There’s no room to speed check as I do every single time I hit the teeniest of kickers. I try to think of how much money I’d need to go off even the smaller 70m jump and decide there isn’t a figure, I’d only do it with a gun to my head.

Considering he went to the Winter Olympics after just 20 months of competitive ski jumping, what he did makes the X Games and the whole notion of extreme sports which followed in the 90s seem like child’s play, particularly when you remember most ski jumpers learn at around five years old. It’s insanely impressive.

As is the fact he did it all with no funding. I’d read somewhere he was forced to eat bin scraps at times, was that true? “When I was first jumping I went to a place called Kandersteg in Switzerland and there I went through the bins for scraps yes. I also stayed in a scout hut there, and the scouts used to give me tins of peas and beans.”

“I went through the bins for scraps… I stayed in a scout hut… the scouts used to give me tins of peas and beans.”

“I had an old helmet which didn’t have a buckle so I used to tie it on with a piece of string but the Italian team then gave me a brand new helmet and goggles so I was able to jump and have a helmet stay on my head which was a bit of a bonus really. I slept in the car, I slept in cow sheds, I slept in a mental hospital when I was in Finland, I just did whatever I had to do to carry on skiing.

If he were a teenager now would he have still gone for ski jumping or might snowboarding have appealed? “I would have loved ski cross, because my background was alpine racing but I was also very comfortable jumping through the air which would have been ideal for ski cross.”

“I do snowboard a little bit but not that much. I would love to do more and I would have loved to do boardercross or slopestyle, and halfpipe looks interesting but I don’t get the chance to ski that often so when I’m out on the snow I tend to ski rather than go boarding.”

“At these Games, some competitors have won gold, some have broken records, and some of you have even soared like an eagle.”

Eddie the Eagle became the surprise hero of the Calgary Games with a constant global media scum around him, as in spite of never being in remote medal contention he was clearly so delighted just to be at the Winter Olympics. He even got a shout out in the closing statements of the games with the Organising Committee’s president saying: “At these Games, some competitors have won gold, some have broken records, and some of you have even soared like an eagle.”

He came home a star with endorsement offers a plenty. What was the craziest thing he was asked to do for money? “Sing a song in Finland with a Finnish songwriter. It got to number two in the charts there and I sung it for six months around Finland and I don’t know even to this day what I was singing! Ski jumping is their national sport so they loved me as I was promoting their sport in such a great way. And they know how difficult it is so they respected me for being out there and giving it a go.”

Unfortunately for Eddie he never got to give it another go as the IOC introduced the “Eddie the Eagle” rule in 1990 which stated that Olympic hopefuls had to finish in the top 30 per cent or top 50 competitors in international events, whichever was fewer. Where as Eddie had qualified by jumping the BOA’s qualifying distance, even though they’d changed the terms along the way.

He never beat the post-1990 criteria though he was a torchbearer for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Still it’s hard not to feel that something is lost when super-enthusiastic amateurs such as Eddie are shut out of what was originally conceived as the ultimate amateur event. Will we ever see a true underdog triumph again?

Calgary had been the same games at which a Jamaican bobsleigh team had competed – as depicted in the film Cool Runnings – which in turn inspired Matthew Vaughn the producer of Eddie the Eagle, who watched the movie with his kids and loved it. He thought: “Why does nobody make movies like this anymore? I wanted to make a movie you could watch and come out feeling inspired. And… a film I could show my kids.”

Eddie the Eagle ends with this quote from Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well.” It left a giant block of ice-sized lump in my throat.

Eddie the Eagle is in cinemas now

Read the rest of our long form features from April’s Money issue here

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