by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CALGARY, Alberta — Finally, ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the Olympic 90-meter ski jump, where the burning question remains: Can a man they call “The Flying Finn” be upstaged by a clumsy, bespectacled Brit who once bit off his tongue?

Strange but true. Remember, this is an event where grown men ski off a huge ramp and fly into the wild blue yonder — without a pole, much less a parachute. No wonder the Canadian winds kept postponing this thing: Chinooks are attracted to shnooks.

Which brings us to our stars. There were only two jumpers who mattered in this competition.

Let’s meet them:

ATHLETE NO. 1 — Matti Nykanen, 24, Finland. The best in the world, the gold medal favorite, the guy who says to Sly Stone, “No, sucker, I want to take you higher.” So outstanding is Nykanen (NU-kah-nen) at jumping, that fellow athletes call him “Matti Nukes.” Which pretty much sums up his personality. Aloof? Nasty? Spoiled? Keep going. He already has been thrown off the Finnish team once for alcohol problems (which, when he really gets wild, have earned him the nickname “Matti Pukes.” But that is another story.).

ATHLETE NO. 2 — Michael (Eddie) Edwards, 24, Great Britain. The worst ski jumper in the world. Eddie Edwards, media star Now, you might not consider this much of a competition. Well. Maybe not for the gold medal. But hey. We all knew Nykanen would win that. We’re talking applause. Attention. Endorsement contracts!

Let’s go to the hill.

There’s Eddie, short, big-jawed, Coke-bottle glasses — he looks like a squished Buddy Holly — about to take his second and final jump. He smiles at the crowd. The crowd goes nuts. He waves at the crowd. The crowd goes nuts.
“ED-DIE! ED-DIE!” it screams. Wait. Didn’t we say he was the worst guy here? Yes, we did. That’s why they love him. Behind those pink goggles is the most dangerous of mixes: eccentricity (his) plus boredom (ours). What do hundreds of reporters write about when they don’t understand a single winter sport, and along comes a nerd- do-well ski jumper who admits he once slept in an insane asylum to save money? As a child of 7, he fell from a see-saw and bit off his tongue. They sewed it back on. Sewed it on? Whoa. Look out. Give us a week. We’ll make this guy a star.

And so we did. Although he can’t jump to save his life (which, come to think of it, is exactly how he jumps), Eddie now gets mobbed at restaurants. Eddie now poses with pin-up girls. Eddie has an agent.

When officials here threatened to keep Eddie (nicknamed “The Eagle”) from jumping the 90 meters for fear he would break every bone in his body, it was front-page news. The fans roared. Eddie was allowed to jump.

And here he comes.

“ED-DIE! ED-DIE! ED-DIE!” . . . Now some of us thought the most fitting exit for old Ed would be to fly off that 90- meter jump and impale himself on a ski — splat! — sort of sticking up right in the middle of the hill, and then folks could come by and say, “Yeah, well, you know. He wasn’t very good anyhow.”

But that may seem cruel.

No matter. Spurred by the cheering crowd, Eddie came off the run the way ketchup comes out of a bottle, stayed in the air long enough for one snap of the Instamatic, then plopped to earth. The Eagle had landed. His distance: 67 meters. That is not very far. If ski jumping were football, 67 meters would be a fumble.

He was dead last.

No matter. Edwards looked happy to be alive. Which, no doubt, he was. He held his skis high and waved.

“How did you like it?” the mob of reporters yelled.

“I loved it! This has been the greatest day of my life!”

“Will you celebrate with a drink?”

“No. I don’t drink. I got drunk once and never drank again.”

“How old were you?”


“What next, Eddie?”

“Oh, I’ll go home for a week.”

“No! After that!”

“Well, I’ve only been at this for two years,” he said, poking at his glasses. “Who knows? Maybe in four years I’ll be the best.”

The best? The dour king of the hill Speaking of the best, the best was soon at the top of the ramp. Matti Nukes. On the first of his two jumps, he broke the hill record. He came off the ramp and flew. And flew. He stayed up so long, his coffee got cold. The only thing bringing him back to earth was the need to collect his gold medal, which he would surely have if he hit this second jump as he hit the first.

And down he came.

We should pause to describe the difference between Eddie the Eagle’s jumping style and that of Nykanen:


OK. Back to the jump. Nykanen lifted off the end of the run, head out over the tips of his skis, and rode the wind better than Christopher Cross ever did. As the crowd gasped, he touched down near the farthest measuring line, the end of the rainbow, where, of course, you find gold. One-hundred and seven meters. Add that to his first jump of 118.5 meters and you’ve got a Northwest Airlink route.

“Congratulations, Matti!” a TV reporter screamed at him. “You’ve won the gold medal. How do you feel?”

“The second jump wasn’t as good as the first jump,” he droned.

And he waddled away.

So much for Matti.

The officials promised he would come back. They were still promising two hours later. Finally, Nykanen, the gold medalist in both the 90- and 70-meter jumps, a guy whose coach says he’s the “best ever,” consented to five minutes.

“Can you describe your feelings at winning the gold?”

“I am very happy,” he said, bleakly.

“How long will you keep jumping?”

“I have plans to compete until 1992.”

“What do you think of Eddie Edwards?”

He paused.

“We need a few clowns in this business,” he said.

And then he left.

And there you have it. The competition that took three days to pull off was now history. Who won? Well. Hard to say. Nykanen goes home with the gold. But last time I looked, a mob of reporters was racing toward the bus area. They were looking for Eddie. CUTLINE Great Britain’s Eddie (the Eagle) Edwards has no form, but lots of admirers.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!