The men’s ski jump record was broken last weekend: twice in quick succession in fact. At a world cup event in Norway, Slovenia’s Peter Prevc became the first man to fly unaided more than a quarter of a kilometre over a frozen strip of snow before, the following day, local lad Anders Fennemel went 1.5m better.
For those of a certain age, and perhaps nationality, it is still nigh on impossible to read about the sport of ski jumping and not picture Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards briefly plummeting through the Calgary air to secure another last place position for Team GB back in 1988.
Twenty seven years ago, almost to the day, Edwards finished the individual large hill event with 57.5 points, a mere 166.5 points shy of the winner. To gain some perspective I used a rough-and-ready formula to calculate that Eddie’s achievement is the equivalent of gaining a place in the 2012 Olympic javelin final and then hurling your spear a paltry 21.76 meters, or running the 100m in around 37 seconds. It was a performance so bad that the International Olympic Committee felt compelled to institute the Eddie the Eagle Rule (official name) which set minimum standards in order to prevent such sideshow hilarity at future Games.
At the top of a pile of 57 lycra-clad men who finished ahead of Edwards that day in the Canadian Rockies sat Finland’s multi-medal winning legend of the sport, Matti Nykänen. The characters of these two competitors meant that fame or notoriety in the world of ski jumping was never going to suffice. Eddie found out he was headed for the Olympics while working as a plasterer and sleeping in a Finnish mental hospital for £1 a night. As Matti paused before beginning the descent into his gold-winning jump we were informed that he “turns his glasses upside down in pubs when he’s looking for danger”. You should already be painfully aware that this pair aren’t like your normal run-of-the-mill EPO taking, blood-transfusing, drug-test-missing Olympians we are so familiar with today.
At the end of Calgary 1988 both athletes were already beginning to feel they had fulfilled all their dreams as far as competitive ski jumping was concerned. Matti had won everything there was to win and Eddie had somehow managed not to kill himself. With neither of the two having any experience or talent for music, they naturally enough decided that they should enter the music business. And with Matti speaking a bit of English and Eddie not understanding a word of Finnish, they naturally enough decided that Finnish was the ideal language for their assault on the pop world.
The Finns lapped it up and the Oasis v Blur-esque battle at the top of the charts in the early nineties turned out to be a much closer affair than their rivalry in the ski resorts. Eddie’s classics included the unforgettable Mun nimeni on Eetu (My name is Eddie) and Eddien Siivellä (On Eddie’s Wing) while Matti countered with the haunting Topless and everyone’s sing-along favourite, Lööpistä Lööppiin.
The pair had the world at their feet. Matti turned his hand to becoming a modern-day Finnish Confucius with gems such as: tomorrow is always in the future, every chance is an opportunity, and what is not done cannot be undone. Eddie meanwhile was charging ten grand a pop to appear on the telly or open theme park rides and advertise everything from cars and vodka to cigars and airlines. Unfortunately when you reach such heights, the only way is down. And just as Matti flew higher and further than our Eddie across the snow, the Finn’s fall from grace was deeper and more dramatic than his old foe’s.
Eddie’s demise was relatively quick and to the point. When a mismanaged trust fund produced an unpayable tax bill and a subsequent involuntary bankruptcy in 1992, Cheltenham’s favourite winter Olympian slithered quietly out of the limelight. At this time Matti was still riding high with his latest album Yllätysten yö selling 25,000 copies: but when a follow-up, Samurai, flopped dramatically, the flying Finn turned to bottle. Big time. His public musings became ever more mysterious. After surmising that when a person is asleep, nothing happens, but when they do not sleep they can even go fishing, Matti declared he was going to move to Copenhagen and apply for Swedish citizenship.
He never followed through with that baffling threat and the women of Denmark’s (or is it Sweden’s?) loss was Finnish women’s gain as he resorted to stripping in a Järvenpää restaurant to pay the bills. Salvation appeared in the form of marriage to a wealthy sausage heiress (you can’t make this stuff up) but Matti’s finger was never far from the self-destruct button.
The Finn was a mean drunk and the first 10 years of the new century saw Matti in and out of custody for various assaults on his wife, the stabbing of a man in a pizza restaurant, and the attempted manslaughter of a family friend after losing a finger pulling contest (don’t ask). While a rejuvenated law-practising Edwards was proudly carrying the Olympic Torch as part of the flame’s relay to Winnipeg in 2010, Matti was serving a 16 month stretch in a Pirkinmaa prison.
He’s out now and keeping a low profile but speak to any Finn and they’ll tell you an incident is always just around the corner for Matti Nykänen. His old pal Eddie, meanwhile, has taken some tentative steps back into the world of D-list celebrity by dancing for Sport Relief, diving for Splash! and dominating Winter Wipeout. The next step would appear to be a joint British-Finnish entry into next year’s Eurovision Song Contest. And with Eddie’s heart and Matti’s talent, who would bet against them winning the whole thing? I imagine Nykänen would say the odds are fifty-sixty either way.