Eagle an endangered species

JON COOK -- SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 11:37 PM ET

He’s as endangered as the bird who shares his nickname.
 
Because what former ski jumper Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards represented, is a dying breed when it comes to Olympic competition.
 
The sight of the pudgy, mustachioed and bespectacled Englishman standing atop the ski ramp at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 is an enduring one for many sports fans, but one that has become rarer with every passing Games.
 
The Eagle, who stood a few inches shorter and was more than 20 pounds heavier than any of his competitors, shared his underdog status with the first Jamaican bobsled team that also debuted at those Games.
 
While the Jamaicans went on to compete in Albertville in 1992 and inspired the 1993 movie “Cool Runnings,” starring the late John Candy, Edwards never again competed thanks to the “Eddie the Eagle” rule instituted by the IOC in 1990, that required athletes to place among the top 50 in international events.
 
They are even trying to overturn the wild-card exemption that allowed African swimmer Eric Moussambani, dubbed “Eric the Eel” in hommage to Edwards, to compete at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Back then the IOC wanted their Olympics to include athletes from developing countries that lacked expensive training facilities. Now it seems they could care less.
 
Sadly Salt Lake, Athens and Turin failed to produce any stories as heartwarming as those of Edwards, the Jamaicans or Moussambani, in a post-9/11 culture where levity is in shorter supply.
 
“That’s what makes the Olympics so special,” bemoaned Edwards, at yesterday’s charity function for the Easter Seals Society of Ontario. “The Olympics is for everybody and it shouldn’t matter whether you’re ranked No. 2 in the world or 2,000th. If you’re the best in your country you should be able to go to the Olympic Games and represent your country at your sport.”
 
The now 43-year-old Edwards said Calgary was a dream come true for an overweight, farsighted and downright geeky lad from the blue-collar British town of Cheltenham, who ate Big Macs, slept in cowsheds and mental hospitals and trained by jumping over cars and buses.
 
“I think it would be very sad if we got rid of these very strange, odd athletes that every once in a while turn up at the Olympic Games,” said Edwards, who was depicted as village idiot and compared to the cartoonish Mr. Magoo. “(Athletes) like Eric the Eel, like myself and the Jamaican bobsled team, were just trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got, which very often isn’t a lot, but they should have the right to go and represent their country at their sport.”
 
Edwards remains the best ski jumper England has ever produced, despite the fact he finished dead last in both the 70-metre and 90-metre events in Calgary. His best leap in Calgary was 72 metres, about half as long as the winning jump. Back in his own country it’s still the national record, if only because no other Brit has had the courage to hurl himself off a ramp at 100 km/h.
 
In addition Edwards’s thick-lensed glasses, which made him resemble Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys, would fog up so badly he often couldn’t see where he was going.
 
“Six or seven jumps in every 10 they would completely steam up and I would hit the jump not really knowing where I was,” admitted Edwards, who had corrective laser-eye surgery a few years ago. “That was the biggest problem with my ski jumping, because they used to fog up all the time.”
 
While his Olympic journey made Edwards a world-wide celebrity, leading to a hit single “Fly Eddie Fly,” a lucrative endorsement deal with Eagle Airlines and $20,000 appearance fees, his success failed to spawn more British ski jumpers.
 
The summer following the Calgary Games Edwards led 40 prospective jumpers to Switzerland to train with him, but the experience was short lived.
 
“As soon as we got there at least 10 of them looked at the jumps and thought ‘Oh they’re too big, I’m going home,’” confessed Edwards. “One or two others broke their arms and legs and decided to give up and in about six months I was back to being the only one again.”
 
The Eagle tried to soar again in 1992, but couldn’t crack the tougher qualification process. Having blown through all his money and being forced to declare personal bankruptcy, Edwards mounted more failed attempts to qualify in 1994 and 1998, before retiring and falling back into the construction trade as a plasterer.
 
In a move that countered his image as a buffoon, Edwards enrolled in law school and graduated a few years ago. He has since married and has a two-year-old daughter.
 
As many memories as Edwards has accrued in the 19 years since Calgary, none will ever replace the time he defied the establishment and hurtled his awkward pear-shaped body into Olympic history.
 
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” said Edwards, whose fondest memory was not the jumps, but attending the closing ceremonies and then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch’s closing remarks. “The surprising part was when (Samaranch) mentioned me in his closing speech and then the 80,000 people in the crowd started chanting ‘Eddie, Eddie’ and I got up and gave them a wave and the crowd went potty (crazy).”
 
The Calgary Games grossed more than $100 million and the facilities created there have given birth to a couple generations of Canadian Olympians, many of whom will become household names three years from now in Vancouver.
 
But Calgary’s real legacy is embodied by the Jamaicans and the Eagle, who showed that the true Olympic spirit is not about winning medals and setting records, but about just making it there. It’s about overcoming odds and opinions and realizing dreams.
 
Now the IOC wants to sterilize its Games by making it just about results. They enact rules that remove the spirit from the sport. They elevate the strong over the weak and celebrate the favourite, while spurning the underdog.
 
If they continue down this path there may never be another Eddie or Eric. There will only be gold.
 
For the Eagle it was never about the landing, but about the flight. And in his own loveable way he was able to soar into our hearts.

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