Eddie the Eagle: My Part In His Downfall

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: It’s been all down hill since the story he got on his first assignment at Reuters. ADRIAN WARNER on how even the most unpromising of material can provide some great sports news stories 

Sometimes you work on stories for weeks and months – scores of phone calls, meetings with sources, some more fruitful than others, and gathering countless documents – before you finally get to the big news.

How one piece of Reuters copy turned into a worldwide sensation. Sort of
How one piece of Reuters copy turned into a worldwide sensation. Sort of

And sometimes, without trying, you just walk into a total belter.

That is exactly what happened to me in December 1986 when I broke the story about Britain’s ski jumper Eddie Edwards, the subject of the film starring Hugh Jackman, Taron Egerton and with a cameo from Christopher Walken that goes on general release next week.

The movie includes plenty of fiction, like many “true life” sporting films in the past, but this is the real story of how a 22-year-old plasterer from Cheltenham became one of Britain’s biggest international sports stories at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

I would love to take full credit for the exclusive, but I can’t. The Reuters sports desk in Fleet Street had been tipped off about the unusual sight of a British name on the list of entries for the prestigious Four Hills jumping competition that winter and, as the most junior reporter in the office, I was told to go and find him.

What happened next is a lesson to any young journalist being sent out on a story. Never believe you can’t turn what looks like an assignment that nobody else fancies into something bigger. It is also a lesson in how it’s possible to become famous very quickly, as Eddie did — even in the days without social media and 24-hour TV news.

It was pure luck that I discoverd him. I was very much a beginner in our trade. I had joined Reuters three months earlier and after 10 weeks of classroom training, I began my tour of the editorial desks in London on sport.

I had a great time. The first story I was asked to write involved ringing up the Manchester United switchboard (no massive communications department in those days) and getting confirmation that Alex Ferguson had joined the club as the new manager. It wasn’t a bad opening by-lined story to begin a professional career.

Then, on December 3, 1986, I found myself heading to the headquarters of the British Ski Federation in central London to meet “Eddie the Eagle” – before he even had wings, never mind a nickname.

I walked into an empty bar at the headquarters that Wednesday afternoon and immediately dismissed the man sitting talking to the barman as my interview candidate. There was no way this diminutive man with thick glasses was a pioneering British ski jumper.

It was only after I had looked everywhere else on the ground floor of the building that I was directed back to Eddie in the bar. Once he began talking in his West Country accent, I realised I was onto a cracking story. I dug out the copy the other day. The story wrote itself.

Olympic athlete Eddie Edwards in 1988
Olympic athlete Eddie Edwards in 1988

Edwards had never been down a 90-metre snow ski jump in his life, having trained largely on smaller plastic ones, but he was planning to make his debut on the World Cup circuit that winter, as he would need to do to qualify for the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988.  He had been forced to borrow kit from the Austrians, Italians and Germans because of a lack of funding. His ultimate ambition was to do skiing stunts in James Bond movies.

“I just jump and enjoy it, ” he told me. “But I hope the British public accept the fact I’m just a beginner and don’t expect me to be in the world’s top 10 straight away.”

The idea that this man could be the subject of a movie 30 years on could not have been further from my mind as I left the bar. What I do remember is our last words to each other.

“What is Reuters, then?” Eddie asked.

“We write stories for the media around the world, ” I replied. “I will make you famous.”

I meant it as a joke.

But the snowball was rolling. The Daily Mail printed my story within 24 hours of it going out on the wire. Soon, every British sports feature writer was chasing after Eddie.

Little more than a year later, and I was astonished to see him at the centre of attention in Calgary, where his press conferences at the Olympics were standing room only. After the Games, and he was appearing on the Johnny Carson Show from New York.

By then, most people in Britain knew who Eddie Edwards was. Top of the Pops appearances followed, as did plenty of other television work.

I have never met Eddie since. In some ways, I prefer to remember him like he was on that December Wednesday afternoon 30 years ago. But I will go to see the film and enjoy the story once again.

  • Adrian Warner is a past SJA Sports News Reporter of the Year who worked for Reuters, the Evening Standard and the BBC. He is now a part-time lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire in addition to his freelance reporting work
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