Rare ski-jumping bird from England is crowd favorite at Olympics

Wearing a snappy team jacket bearing the British Union Jack, Eddie Edwards is clearly not a man without a country. His nationality, however, surely makes him the only Olympic ski jumper without a ski jump. Great Britain, which has long maintained a low profile in Alpine skiing, has a smattering of slopes. One thing it doesn't have, however, is anything like the honest-to-goodness launching ramps being used here for the Olympic jumping events.

An absence of facilities would have discouraged most people, but not the irrepressible Mr. Edwards, whose presence in Sunday's 70-meter event was a testament to his initiative and courage, if not necessarily his airborne grace.

As expected, Edwards finished dead last among a field of 58 jumpers, but was cheered with appreciative gusto nonetheless. Each of his efforts measured only 55 meters, compared with the 89.5 meters that Finland's Matti Nykanen sailed in his best jump en route to the gold medal.

Even by his own modest standards, Edwards had a poor day. But it was the 24-year-old Englishman's Olympic debut, after all, and the jitters should be long gone next time.

``I'm going for the 1992 and '94 Games,'' he said confidently before the competition ever began here.

By the time of the next Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, and those that inaugurate a new Olympic scheduling format two years later in an as yet undetermined location, Edwards expects to be much improved.

Considering that he is actually only a novice now, his hopes are not unrealistic.

A plasterer by trade, Edwards got into ski jumping only about two years ago, when he decided to expand his horizons in the sport. He had tried downhill, speed skiing, and aerials, but found jumping ``the most mentally demanding.''

The first challenge, of course, is simply to muster the necessary courage to become a human projectile. He admits this is no small task, but one where he has made some progress.

``I'm scared, but I used to be very scared,'' he says, recalling the anxiety he felt at first peering down a jump's long in-run, or ramp.

Edwards's initiation into jumping occurred at Lake Placid, N.Y., where he had gone to practice his downhill and slalom technique. Those pursuits were becoming increasingly expensive, and according to John Leaning, the Nordic director of the British Olympic team, ``Eddie decided to have a go at ski jumping. The people there deserve a lot of credit for helping him along, but I understand he had a very difficult time the first few days, with a lot of falls.''

But no amount of mishaps could extinguish his enthusiasm, and the intrepid native of Cheltenham, England, kept right on soaring.

``In about five months, I was jumping off the 90-meter,'' he related to throng of curious reporters during a loosely arranged press conference. ``They told me it would take seven or eight years.''

Edwards's cram course allowed him to enter international competitions, even though he remained far below world class. He finished last at the '87 world championships, in 67th place.

Contact lenses do not suit him, so he wears glasses that seem to swallow his angular pink face. The image is more bookish than one would expect of an Olympian, and the glasses sometimes literally leave him in a fog, even when shielded by goggles.

``Usually they clear up in time,'' he says rather unreassuringly.

Eddie's protruding jaw seems to hint at a determination that lies beneath a relaxed demeanor and a ready smile. It has shown itself in his efforts to pay for his skiing, even when it meant shoveling snow or baby sitting to make ends meet.

With no history of producing ski jumpers, the British Ski Association wasn't prepared to back Edwards this time, but he has recently been sponsored by a computer firm. Leaning expects that support for Eddie will be written into the association's next four-year plan.

He has achieved too much recognition to be ignored, perhaps more coverage than any other current British winter sports athlete.

``He's got worldwide appeal, because he's been seen on the [international] circuit,'' Leaning explains. ``They rave about him in Scandinavia - he gets in all the papers - and he was a local hero in Lake Placid. He's a complete phenomenon, a guy who has cut through all the red tape and all the problems.''

Since the British have no ski jumping coaches, Edwards has managed to attach himself to various teams. He was worked with the Swiss and Swedish coaches, and before arriving here he practiced with the American jumpers in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

During the Games, he plans to ask United States officials if he can make the arrangement more permanent.

If he succeeds, who knows what sort of quantum leaps may lie ahead.

One of those leaps could come not on skis, but behind a steering wheel. During his stay here, an automotive manufacturer approached him, asking if he would be willing to take a four-wheel-drive vehicle up a 90-meter jump such as the one on which he will compete Saturday.

Such a stunt may or may not ever actually happen, but Edwards sounded willing. In fact, he even went one better.

``They wanted to show off how good their four-wheel-drive is,'' Eddie explained. ``But I said why not turn it around and I'll drive it off the jump to show what a beautiful suspension it has. I'm here if they need me.''

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