Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards became the first British ski jumper to compete at the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary 30 years ago. Although Edwards finished in last place in both of his events at the 1988 Games, he became a cultural icon, even outshining those who earned medals.
Michael Edwards was no child protégé. He was born on December 5, 1963 in Cheltenham, England, 90 miles from London as the middle child in a working class family. Edwards did not begin skiing until he was a teenager and struggled to keep up with the expenses.
“When I started competing, I was so broke that I had to tie my helmet with a piece of string,” he recalled to The Smithsonian. “On one jump the string snapped, and my helmet carried on farther than I did. I may have been the first ski jumper ever beaten by his gear.”
Edwards was a strong downhill skier and nearly earned a spot for Great Britain’s downhill team for the 1984 Games. After failing to make the cut, Edwards decided to begin training in Lake Placid, New York, but could not keep up with the demanding costs. Then in 1986, at age 22, he began ski jumping.
“I looked for something cheaper to do, and I saw the ski jumps and I thought, ‘Well, Britain has lots of alpine skiers, cross-country skiers, biathlon skiers, but we’d never had a jumper.’ And I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go,’” he recounted to The Canadian Press.
Perseverance and determination kept The Eagle flying. In the two years before the 1988 Olympics, he slept in his mother’s car, ate food from garbage cans, and received little help from his home country who had never qualified for ski jumping at the Olympic level. Edwards even spent a month in a mental hospital – not because he was a patient – but to spend a night in the cheapest room they offered, while training in Finland. He actually found out he qualified for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary one night in the asylum after representing Great Britain in the world championships in 1987.
In Calgary, Edwards struggled mightily. The Eagle qualified for the two individual events (what’s now called the normal hill and the large hill), and finished last in both events. But finishing in last place was not the entire story: On the normal hill, Edwards scored 69.2 points – 70 points back from the second-to-last finisher, Spain’s Bernat Sola. The story repeated itself on the large hill, where 54th-place Todd Gillman of Canada scored twice as many points as 55th-placed Edwards. Matti Nykanen of Finland swept both hills – becoming the first man to win two jumping golds in one Games – but it was Edwards that became an overnight sensation.
Edwards’ technique was far from perfect; he lacked an athletic build and he wore thick glasses that fogged up at high altitudes. Yet people loved him because of his determination and the fact that fans could relate to him as a normal guy competing at the highest level.
“I was a true amateur and embodied what the Olympic spirit is all about,” Edwards said to The Smithsonian. “To me, competing was all that mattered.”
Edwards’ greatest success came after competing in Calgary.
“It was pandemonium…people kept stopping me for autographs and photographs,” Edwards fondly remembered in a 2014 interview with NBCOlympics.com. “When I left for the Olympic Games, nobody in the U.K. knew who I was.”
He returned to his homeland to a crowd of 15,000 at the airport and 30 police officers escorted him home, he recalled. Edwards went on to make appearances on late-night shows, judge beauty pageants, sign a sponsorship deal with Eagle Airlines (now Envoy Air, a regional branch of American Airlines) and earned his own parade in Cheltenham. He even recorded two songs in Finnish about his athletic feats and performed on stage in front of thousands of people. He eventually bankrupted himself, but recovered.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other ski officials grew frustrated with Edwards’ success. In 1990, the IOC said in order for athletes to compete on their stage they have to place in the top 30 percent in international events or be a top-50 competitor, whichever is fewer. This decision was dubbed the “Eddie the Eagle rule” in hopes of limiting the amount of amateur competitors.
“At first I was very upset,” remembered Edwards. “Some nations thought I was making a mockery of the sport but I wasn’t intending to do that at all.”
In 2008, Edwards returned to Calgary for the 20th anniversary of the 1988 Games. He rode a zipline that simulated the speed of a ski jump while carrying the Olympic Torch. He returned to Canada and was a torchbearer for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, running with the torch through Winnipeg.
In 2016, 20th Century Fox released a biopic Eddie the Eagle, which stared Taron Egerton as Edwards, along with Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken.
Most recently in 2017, The Eagle ski jumped in Calgary for the first time since the 1988 Olympics. He joked to Canadian media that if Calgary bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, he wouldn’t rule out a comeback. “I’ll be 60 then – maybe I’ll start training now and could actually be quite a good ski jumper by then,” he laughed.