Alan Hubbard: Eddie the Eagle a welcome reminder of Baron de Coubertin’s forgotten philosophy

 

The serious injury sustained by the former British gymnastic queen Beth Tweddle – she has fractured two vertebrae in her neck – while taking part in the Channel 4 TV reality game show The Jump is a stark reminder of the dangers of launching oneself through space, fingers crossed rather than skis, and praying for a happy landing. 

Swimmer Rebecca Adlington is another Olympic heroine who, among other celebrities, has been forced to retire hurt after attempting to ski jump from three times the height of a double decker bus.

Now there are calls for the TV show to be abandoned as being a threat to life and limb.

All this has prompted Eddie Edwards, who has acted as a mentor for the series, to underline the fact that ski jumping is no laughing matter, even though there were giggles galore when he himself flew through the air with the greatest of unease as Eddie the Eagle.

“Perhaps finally you’ll all believe me,” he declared this week. “As I hear of each celebrity injury part of me wants to leap up and down shouting ‘I told you so.’ This is an extreme sport. Ski jumping is a great deal harder than it looks.”

While many roared with laughter at his apparent ineptitude there was also great admiration for his undoubted valour and this shines through in a new movie about the intrepid endeavours of the so-called “bespectacled buffoon” who so peeved the snobby purists in the Olympic movement.

Described as comedy-drama, the Hollywood-made “Eddie the Eagle” takes much dramatic licence with his life story as Edwards himself admits. The line between snow business and show business is thin to the point of invisibility.

Nonetheless it is high on entertainment value and has been enthusiastically received by critics in the United States where it was released last month, with lots of oohs and aahs, and applause when unsteady Eddie manages to land on his feet.

A trailer was also shown during the telecast last weekend of the Superbowl, watched by 100 million.

Now Eddie the Eagle, the movie, lands in British cinemas on April 1 – no fooling!

It has been a long-term project, first talked of some five years ago. And when it was originally mooted fellow ginger-top Rupert Grint – “that guy from Harry Potter” – as Edwards described him, was earmarked for the lead role. Originally it was to have been Steve Coogan. “But I looked at the script and hated it – it made me sound like Alan Partridge,” Edwards said at the time.

Now Welsh actor Taron Egerton, star of smash-hit Kingsman, plays the clumsy ex-plasterer from Cheltenham who achieved international celebrity as the tail-end Charlie of the ski jump, winter sport’s ultimate underdog.

Aussie superstar Hugh Jackman is Edwards’ fictional American coach, Bronson Peary.

“The real Eddie had this great way of masking the real-life danger with this almost clownish, comical exterior,” Jackman said when the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival. “Really, it’s a very inspirational, uplifting kind of story. You realise he’s an everyman who’s just dreaming big.”

In 1988 Eddie became the Rocky of the Rockies at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. There those purists sniffed and the public smiled…then cheered.

Those who will be less than pleased with the way they are portrayed will be officials of the British Olympic Association, the International Olympic Committee and British Ski Federation who are seen as a prissy bunch of blazerati in stuffed shirts, noses turned up at Eddie’s efforts.

The blazers turned their backs on him, pouring scorn on his last-place plummet and ignoring the enormous contribution he had made towards raising awareness about the Winter Olympics to an otherwise apathetic British public. Not to mention his unbounded bottle.

But as Edwards himself said: “When did anyone ever say the Olympics were only for winners”. Certainly not Baron de Coubertin.

Failure he may have been in terms of results but he remains an indelible part of Britain’s Olympic folklore.

A comedic figure maybe, the abominable snowman, Mr Magoo on skis, but he was loved by the punters who admired his derring-do and old-world gumption.

Derided by officialdom he may have been but at least the Eagle put some fun into the Games, even if the then Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, declared during a subsequent Winter Olympics in Turin in 2006 that he did not want to see the like of Edwards anywhere near a GB team tracksuit again.

 “I thought his comments were pretty disgraceful,” recalls Edwards. “It was a very silly thing for a Sports Minister to say. His remarks were totally out of sync with what the person in the street thinks. He may have considered me incompetent but I’d like to see fewer incompetent ministers like him running the country.”

In Calgary, where the Eagle dared, as in the Nordic heartlands of ski jumping, he was seen as someone to be celebrated, not scorned.

Now he says: “I’m surprised people remember me. It must have been a strong message I gave out. I was a true amateur and typified what the Olympic spirit is about. Some may have laughed at me back home but in other countries they appreciated what I was trying to do because they understand the difficulties and complexities of the sport.”

Edwards was Britain’s first Olympic ski jumper – and remains the only one. The nearest the Olympics ever got to another of his kind was Eric the Eel – Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea – who in the 2000 Sydney Games took almost two minutes to swim a 100 metres freestyle heat. Yet no-one laughed at him.

Although the Eagle turned out to be the turkey who wanted to fly, he returned from Calgary to a hero’s welcome, parading to a crowd of 10,000 in Cheltenham with a slice of pizza in one hand and a Thomas the Tank Engine flag in another.

The British Ski Federation could have picked him as a wildcard for three more Games but snootily elected not to, even though his distances increased from 55 metres, on the 90m jump, to 85m and from 71m to 115m on the 120m jump. And he wasn’t always last.

In the US Championships he finished 29th out of 85 and believed he had qualified for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano but was again refused a wildcard. The Olympic authorities had already introduced what is known as the “Eddie Rule” which requires a certain standard in order to qualify – meaning participating athletes had to be in the world’s top 50.

“I always knew that at any time I could have killed myself, yet whenever I got it right, it was the most exhilarating thing in the world, but always, always scary,” he says.

He resolutely refuses to see himself as a loser, more someone who has overcome massive odds. “What people didn’t realise was that at heart, I was simply an athlete who wanted to do the best I could.”

The film quotes the bold Baron’s foundational ethos for his modern Olympics: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle.”

In today’s sporting times of endless doping scandals and cynical endemic corruption, that seems to have been conveniently buried.

So this movie depicting such a heartwarming story of the Eagle who dared offers a welcome reminder of that forgotten philosophy. It may even have you jumping out of your seats.

 

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