Olympic misfits prove that dreams do come true

A man is perched upon two borrowed skis at the top of a massive ski jump, his feet layered in socks to make his boots fit. He pushes off with his doughy legs and before he can even hit the jump his bi-focals have fogged over, rendering him blind. The man is Michael Edwards, known to most as Eddie The Eagle, and this is the story of how an overweight, nearly blind British man became an Olympic ski jumper.

Eddie had always wanted to be an Olympic skier and had originally competed in downhill skiing, narrowly failing to qualify for Great Britain's Olympic team in the 1984 games. This failure prompted him to move to Lake Placid to focus on training and enter more competitive races. Being entirely self-funded, Eddie found that he couldn't meet the cost of his training and his chances to make the downhill team began to look slim. One glorious avenue remained open on Eddie's Olympic journey, however. That year there was not a single Brit who attempted to qualify for Olympic ski jumping, so that is what Eddie decided to become: an Olympic ski jumper.

To cut costs, Eddie wore another man's equipment, needing to wear many layers of socks just to fit in the boots. He had no real professional training and was about twenty pounds heavier than the next largest competitor, compromising the vital balance he needed. Probably the most troublesome ailment (and most endearing) was Eddie’s extreme shortsightedness, a condition that forced him to wear giant pink bi-focal lenses at all times.

Despite these insurmountable obstacles, Eddie was officially notified that he would be competing for Great Britain in the 1988 Olympic games while he was taking a break from training, supporting himself by working as a plasterer and living in a Finnish mental hospital, not because of an illness, but because it was the only place he could afford to stay. The biggest boon to Eddie’s success was the fact that no other British citizen had attempted to qualify for the event. He made the qualification by coming 55th in the world in 1987.

Regardless of the difficulties, and an obvious lack of skill in his sport, Eddie quickly seized international fame at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. As Britain's first and only ski jumper, he set the British record for distance with 73.5 meters; unfortunately, this was a horrible result for ski-jumpers, and a full 26 meters less than the gold medal winner Matti Nykänen of Finland. Eddie ended up finishing last in both the small and large hill events. This fabulously lacking performance made him an instant crowd favourite, and people gathered to cheer on this endearing misfit.

He soon gained a massive cult following, which led to talk show appearances and endorsement opportunities. During the '88 games he appeared on the Johnny Carson show, and later promoted cars in ad campaigns. Over the last few years he's been a novelist, singer and radio co-host as well as recently bearing the Olympic flame through Winnipeg for the 2010 Winter Games. So great was his fame in ‘88, that in the closing ceremonies, when the proprietor of the games delivered the Game’s closing speech, he alluded to “some competitors soaring like eagles,” which elicited the roaring applause of fans who chanted, “Eddie, Eddie.”

Ski jumping, however, is in the Olympics, and many people who took it seriously felt that Eddie's involvement was a mockery to the sport. This prompted a new rule, aptly named The Eddie The Eagle Rule, which stated that all Olympic hopefuls most compete in international competitions of the desired sport, and must rank in either the top 50 participants or top 30 percent, both of which would have excluded Eddie. These new restrictions made it almost impossible for someone to follow in Eddie's awkward ski-steps.

Michael Edwards isn't the only endearing Olympic misfit. In fact, in the same year at the very same Olympics, another fabulous display of ill-equipped Olympic spirit took place when the Jamaican bobsled team qualified to participate. The irony of a tropical nation competing in a winter sport such as bobsledding was so great that they, like Eddie, achieved instant fame and became crowd favourites.

The Jamaican team was actually created by Canadians William Maloney and George Fitch. While visiting the island nation they observed that the sport of pushcart was extremely similar to bobsledding. They decided they could use their bobsledding experience to make a solid team and looked to Jamaica’s more well-known sport to provide them with talent: sprinting. Unfortunately, they were unable to convince any of the Olympic Jamaican sprinting team to give up their sprinting dreams and possibly make fools of themselves bobsledding. Instead they turned to the island’s military and, before long, they had the bobsled team they had wanted, one whose members had never seen snow, but a bobsled team nonetheless.

The ’88 Olympics were by no means successful for the Jamaican bobsled team; however, they impressed many officials and spectators with some spectacularly speedy starts. Regretfully, they never actually finished all the heats of the event, due to a crash, but, as famously portrayed in the movie Cool Runnings, they picked up their bobsled and walked to the finish line to a thunderous applause.

Although they were initially considered simply a novelty, the Jamaican team has intense commitment to their sport to this day. In the 1992 Olympics, in Albertville, France, they improved tremendously from their first Olympics, although still did not achieve impressive results. In the 1994 winter games, however, the team stunned critics by finishing 14th in the event, ahead of much more prominent countries such as the United States, France, and Italy. Hopefully, we will get to witness Jamaican success on the bobsled track ourselves, as Jamaica will appear in this year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

These stunning examples of willpower are what make the Olympics so special – both Eddie and the Jamaican bobsled team have inspired movies. These legends were immortalized, not only because they were both funny and endearing to watch, but also because they captivated spectators and gave people a common champion to root for. However, the implementation of qualification restrictions has made it impossible for us to witness similar misfit heroes in the future. The Summer Games have put in place similar measures after a swimmer who had began the sport only four months earlier barely managed to complete two lengths, but qualified as his competitors had faulted out.

Obviously, commendable willpower like this will be prominent in this February's Games, but by no means will they be as hilarious. We may possibly never again take joy in watching our internationally beloved underdogs lug their way to Olympic glory, drawn along by the adoration of their fans. We would be loathe to forget characters like these, characters whose goals were achieved through determination and more than a little luck, and taught that there is always a possibility, no matter how slim, of achieving our wildest dreams.

//Mat Humphreys

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