The celebrity that Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards achieved in the late 1980s was a very British phenomenon. Sure, he won the hearts of pretty much everyone at the Calgary Olympics in 1988, but support for plucky also-rans and bumbling no-hopers seems hardwired in the British sporting psyche, emanating from the same region that spawns received footy wisdom about “getting stuck in”, “giving 101 percent” and “fancy-dan” foreigners being unable to produce the goods “at Stoke on a cold, rainy Tuesday”, or some variant thereof. (This last one might seem of a different order, but implicit in the observation is the admission that, short on finesse, Brits rely on “hard but fair” tackling technique – known in other countries as “fouling”).
The Eddie the Eagle movie was released last week in Taiwan and has received quite a lot of press, with posters up all over town, and the Taiwan-centric YouTube channel Stop Kiddin’ Studio getting the opinions of foreigners who were invited to a screening courtesy of 20th Century Fox. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the story of the underdog resonates with Taiwanese audiences. A bit of glamour courtesy of Hugh Jackman’s fictitious mentor character also probably helped.
Eddie and Taiwan have both received a raw deal at the hands of the International Olympic Committee. Taiwan has suffered humiliation over official nomenclature and The Eagle saw his hopes of continued participation stymied by a change in qualifying rules that essentially functioned as a no-hoper preventive.
If that link sounds tenuous, I’ve got an even better one! One of my oldest pals on this island, Jay Panaseiko, recently related the little-known part his father Nick played in helping the British ski-jumper hit the heights at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. “I remember the hype and thinking it was cool that my dad was helping make this guy famous,” he told me.
Like me, he remembers youngsters at that time thinking The Eagle was a bit of a joke, something most people now acknowledge was deeply unfair on a brave athlete who was not without talent. Still, it struck him as odd that The Eagle’s story had resurfaced. “It’s funny that the movie is so big after all these years.”
Panaseiko, Snr. made his name as one of Ontario’s foremost promoters in the 1960s, working with such top-draw rock outfits as the Rolling Stones and KISS. By the 1980s, he had moved into Vegas-type dance revues, one of which launched Shania Twain to stardom, and was hoping to capitalize on the buzz around Calgary with his latest venture Red, White and Hot.
Struggling to pull in the crowds, Panaseiko, Snr. hit on the idea of getting “The Eagle” involved. Edwards had been garnering press for his bumbling but affable persona from the moment he touched down in Calgary. As luck would have it, his parents were staying at the hotel where the show was being performed.
Drawing on his entertainment know-how, Panaseiko, Snr. rechristened the showgirls the Eaglettes, had Eddie join them on stage during a performance and even got involved in merchandising, creating a line of Eagle and Eaglettes garments. The real ace up his sleeve was milking a showbiz connection – Liberace’s manager no less – to get Edwards a spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
It might have seemed like an unlikely alliance but Panaseiko, Snr. says he had rarely seen such excitement as people packed the hotel to get a glimpse of the ski-jumper. “Eddie was like a rock star,” says Panaseiko, Snr. “It was Eddie Mania!”
Alas it wasn’t to last. Following his heroics Calgary, Edwards’ career was frozen by the introduction of a rule that allowed only the top 30 percent or top 50 competitors access to major international events. The rule became known as the Eddie the Eagle Rule.
As noted, Taiwan has also suffered from IOC rules which force it to compete as Chinese Taipei. Set to visit these shores for the second time this summer, Panaseiko, Snr. reflects responded to my question on parallels between The Eagle’s struggles and those of his son’s adopted country with a typically showbiz analogy.“Eddie was a one hit wonder,” he says. “But he didn’t stop believing. The Taiwanese athletes can also keep living the dream by being stars for their country.”