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Eddie the Eagle, the ordinary-guy Olympian, takes flight again

At the 1988 Winter Olympics, a British construction worker of modest talent named Michael Edwards decided to hurtle himself hundreds of feet down a ramp at 60 mph and then hundreds of feet more through the air.

The setting was the 90-meter ski-jump competition, and a medal was about as close as the moon. But Edwards' spirited performance at those Calgary Games earned him a raft of media coverage and the sobriquet Eddie the Eagle, a living viral video long before the age of YouTube.

Neither he nor the sports-broadcasting world would ever be the same.

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"I just wanted to go out there and be the best ski jumper I could possibly be and maybe get some sponsorships that would help me compete in future Games," recalled Edwards by phone from his home north of Bristol, England, earlier this week. "Unfortunately it became so big I got more attention than the guy who won the event."

Edwards' story is mainly remembered by sports fans older than 35. At a time when Europeans both stoned-faced (Matti "The Flying Finn" Nykanen) and tabloid-ready (Alberto "The Bomba" Tomba) were dominating the Winter Games, the bespectacled Edwards captured the world's attention with — what's the opposite of dominance? Whatever that is.

Squeaking into the competition as an amateur when that was still possible, Edwards represented Britain, the first-ever Olympic ski jumper in a country where snow is as common as a respectable tabloid. Edwards finished dead last in both the 70-meter and 90-meter events. He became a folk hero anyway.

Fans embraced him in part ironically, in part because he seemed so devotedly kamikaze. If Winter Olympians are like us, only crazier, Edwards was the most like us, and the craziest.

Now he's the subject of a new dramatized tale: "Eddie the Eagle," a crowd-pleaser of a British film from 20th Century Fox that opens in the U.S. on Friday.

Directed by Dexter Fletcher ("Sunshine on Leith") from a script by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton, the account follows Edwards (Taron Egerton) as he dedicates himself to the single-minded pursuit of passable mediocrity.

"X-Men" and "Kick-Ass" filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, a savant of the outsider hero, produced the movie, which is pitched between inspirational sports drama and fish-out-of-water comedy. Doubted by the British Olympic establishment, the global ski-jump community and even his own family, the Edwards character seeks against all odds to make it to Calgary. He's aided in his quest by an alcoholic former great, who eventually coaches Edwards to his now-famous Olympic appearance.

"I think the press made fun of Eddie a little at the time, but he's really this affable, warm-spirited guy who just happens to have this enthusiasm for a death-defying thing," Egerton said. "It's inspiring when someone has a complete lack of instinct for self-preservation."

The film takes its liberties with history. Edwards did not in fact have a drunken, has-been coach who made him a personal rehab project (Hugh Jackman, doing his best Tom Buchanan). Nor did he have a meaningful pre-competition exchange with Nykanen, as he does in the film. ("Matti didn't actually speak English. He could barely speak Finnish.")

And instead of a parent that opposed him at every turn, Edwards was backed by supportive if undercapitalized family. "I feel a little bad for my father. It sounds from the movie like he didn't love me," he notes.

But Edwards did possess the sort of grit that has only ever existed in, well, Hollywood movies. And, as the film shows, he had the kind of grass-roots quirkiness that was once common in athletics but has become nearly extinct in today's polished world of big-money sports.

At a time when athletic competitions seems less like a place for everyday people with dreams than Ivan Drago-like automatons on a quest for a Nike deal — and when even X-Games athletes have one eye on social media — Edwards' story is heartwarming and quaintly innocent.

"There was something that was charming and self-effacing about Eddie, just an everyday knockabout bloke," Jackman said. "It was the epitome of just having a go. Now people go viral because they want to go viral."

Jackman said before he signed on to "Eddie the Eagle" he never took the athlete seriously, influenced by a phrase in his native Australia in which to "Eddie the Eagle" something was to reach beyond one's grasp, as in, "You're studying to become a brain surgeon? What are you, Eddie the Eagle?"

"I assumed he was a prankster. Then I realized this was really his dream," Jackman said. "I think some of the antics" — Eagle played heavily to the crowd and held memorable press conferences — "were to cover a genuine fear of doing the jumps." The actor paused. "I don't blame him."

Filmgoers will understand his hesitation. Fletcher shoots the film with not just the standard side-view shots but above the ramp as well as from the point-of-the-view of the jumper, conveying how thrillingly vertiginous the sport can be.

Fletcher said that he hopes to reinvent, subtly, the inspirational sports movie.

"This wasn't the underdog story where the tension is, 'Can this person come from nowhere and win?' It's the underdog story where the tension is, 'Can this person avoid falling on their rear end and compete?'"

In this respect "Eddie the Eagle" is like a more airborne "Cool Runnings." (Incidentally, the Jamaican bobsled team debuted at the same Olympics as Edwards.)

Edwards resisted a movie for more than a decade, particularly a Steve Coogan version he thought was too broad and mocking.

"These scripts I would read just emphasized the slapstick. It was like they were imagining this Alan Partridge sitcom," Edwards said, referring to Coogan's trademark blowhard TV character. "I said this isn't right. And so it all died a death." Vaughn and then Fletcher convinced him this would be a better fit.

Even their movie, it should be said, has its light moments — an elderly German restaurateur comes on to Edwards after she catches him squatting in her storage room. Edwards said real life wasn't always that funny.

"I was sleeping in the car, in cow sheds, in a mental hospital. I was scraping food out of bins. And the whole time I'm thinking the next jump could very well by my last. I could kill myself," Edwards said. "In some ways the movie doesn't show how bad it really was."

These days, Edwards lives in a small town in Western England near where he grew up, plastering ceilings when he's not making past-glory media appearances or winning reality-show diving competitions, as he did a number of years back. He gives motivational speeches and appears during Olympics broadcasts. He never competed in another Olympics — in fact, a rule was enacted to prevent complete amateurs like him from competing in the Games.

He still does jumps for charity — over cars, buses, any object that people will pay to see him vault over. It's a relatively low-profile existence compared to his life during a whirlwind few days at the end of the Reagan era. But he said he has few regrets.

"For me I was never someone who wanted to hold on to the celebrity image," said Edwards, who saw the movie last month and said he had to "bring a box of Kleenex" as he relived that time. "My goal was just to prove people wrong. That's always been what's motivated me. And I did that. The rest I could like while it lasted but I didn't need to hold on to. I liked being Eddie the Eagle. But I also like being Michael Edwards, plasterer and general builder."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 26, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "The return of a soaring ordinary-guy Olympian - British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle made an unlikely bid for glory in '88. He's back." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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