Monday, August 16, 2004

The Greatest Olympic Athlete Ever

Like many Canadians, my interest in the Olympics basically died in 1988 when Ben Johnson got stripped of his medals and records. After that, what was the point in watching, when I knew that even if Canada won, there would probably be some twist to turn us back into losers? And that Perfect Strangers episode where Balki meets Carl Lewis (Larry: "You're Carl Lewis. You're Carl Lewis. You're Carl Lewis...") seemed to have been made especially to mock me: see, Americans get medals and big-time TV gigs. Canadians get drug tests and bad CBC documentaries. No wonder we have a national inferiority complex.

But anyway, the one thing I do remember fondly about the 1988 Olympics comes from the Winter edition -- this being when the Winter and Summer editions were held in the same year, requiring the genuinely entertaining TV to be pre-empted twice in one year -- was this guy who represented Great Britain in the ski-jumping event. His name was Eddie Edwards, but everybody called him "Eddie the Eagle." The English were not noted for skiing prowess, and everybody said Eddie would make an ass of himself. Everybody was right: he came in dead last and, while he wasn't a bad ski-jumper compared to you or me, he looked ridiculous compared to the best ski-jumpers from countries with actual skiing.

This (relative) ineptitude made Eddie the Eagle a cult figure for a few days. More people were talking about him, in my neighborhood, than the winning athletes in other events. There were news stories about the Eddie the Eagle fans, including a clip of some guy singing a song he'd written to the tune of "The Man on the Flying Trapeze":

He flies through the air
With no ease at all,
That's Eddie the Eagle,
He's having a ball.

Eddie the Eagle was my favorite part of that Olympics. I think, as a kid with no particular athletic ability, it was a pleasure to see a guy prove that you could come in dead last in an athletic competition and still be cooler than most of the people who finished ahead of you. In the Olympics, which are all about ferocious competition between nations, but disguised by a thin can't-we-all-just-get-along veneer, Eddie the Eagle stood up for national pride, proving that the British (and by extention, Canadians, since in 1988 we Canadians were still sort of allowed to feel British) were more fun than other countries, and that mattered more than who won the medals. Eddie had style; Eddie had a persona; Eddie was an artist. Maybe that marks the moment I became more interested in the arts than in sports; I don't know, but I do know that the Olympics have never been the same without Eddie the Eagle and his little dose of genuine entertainment.

For more on Eddie the Eagle, see here and here and, for an interview, here.

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