By Sarah Pridgeon
On Sunday morning, the whole of Great Britain was talking about Jenny Jones and her snowboarding bronze medal win. Hers marked the 23rd medal for my country at the Winter Olympics and the first we won in a snow event.
Actually, her win is more impressive than it sounds. When I say that it was our 23rd medal, I don’t mean at these particular Games – I’m talking about during every Winter Olympics combined since 1924. And when I say that her bronze was our first medal on snow, I mean that it was our first ever medal on snow.
It’s not really surprising that we’re terrible at the Winter Olympics – we don’t have much snow of our own. You’d as well ask a penguin to ride a camel as ask a Brit to strap on a pair of skis. We can do it, and we’re not averse to doing it when we’re on holiday in the Alps, but it’s never going to be a natural part of our lifestyles.
We proved that we’re capable of summer sporting during the 2012 Olympics. It was one of the defining modern glories of the kingdom: for a tiny group of countries with only a few million residents, we managed to come third in the whole world and won 65 medals. We hosted the event with almost no mishaps (which is a far cry from the backwards toilets and removable door handles we’re hearing about in Sochi) and the whole country rallied behind its athletes.
We like the Summer Olympics – we always have. We’re one of only four countries to have competed at every single Games since the modern era began and the only country to have won at least one gold medal at every single one. London is also the only city to have hosted the event on three different occasions. All impressive accolades, but we fall down a bit once winter arrives.
Jenny Jones is an appealing anomaly and her medal well and truly deserved. She used to be a chalet maid in a country that has more than an inch of snowfall per year and thus honed her talent away from her native shores. While actually in England, she had nothing but the local dry ski slope to practice on – and I can tell you from experience that those things get very dull, very fast.
I, too, learned to ski on a dry slope and that, rather than my natural preference to sit still and drink beer, is precisely why I haven’t pursued it as an Olympic career. Travelling thirty feet down the same hill for more than an hour is not something my patience can tolerate.
Only one notable incident took place on that dry ski slope, and it had nothing to do with my technique. Standing with my schoolmates, I noticed that a fellow skier was waving excitedly in my direction. I didn’t know him and I didn’t know why he was waving at me, so I followed my teenage inclination to sneer back at him dismissively.
It turned out later, much to my dismay, that the gentleman in question was Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards. If you know that name, it’s not because he was an athlete held in high regard. The highest praise one could probably direct at our one-time Olympic hope was that he never gave up trying.
If the rest of the skiers on a course jumped eighty feet, Eddie would jump forty. If everyone else managed to land in a standing position, Eddie would find a way to fall over. He was, you might say, consistent in his lack of ability.
He is nevertheless a beloved figure in British sporting because he was the first competitor to ever represent us in Olympic ski jumping, back in the 1980s. He was extremely long-sighted, heavier than everybody else on the qualifying list and somewhat scuppered by having no financial backing whatsoever. He learned to ski at Lake Placid, where he borrowed his instructor’s equipment and wore six layers of socks just to make the boots fit.
He was forced to wear his glasses at all times, even though they fogged so badly that he couldn’t see the course, and was actually living in a mental hospital in Finland when he was told he had qualified for the Games. Not as a patient – he just couldn’t find anywhere else to stay.
I shouldn’t sell him short, really – he holds the world record for stunt jumping. He managed to sail over the top of ten cars and six buses, but he still came last in both his Olympic events.
The worse he did, the more we loved him. He became an instant celebrity, but a huge embarrassment for the ski jumping establishment. As the 1988 Winter Olympics drew to a close, the president of the Organizing Committee singled him out during his speech, saying: “Some competitors have won gold, some have broken records, and some of you have even soared like an eagle.”
Nevertheless, the entry requirements were toughened so that nobody could follow his example. For some reason, the establishment felt that he was making a mockery of their treasured sport.
Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards is the perfect example of my country’s approach to winter sporting, and to life in general. Like a bulldog clinging to the postman’s leg, we will keep on keeping on even when there’s no point.
We’ve had some brilliant Olympic competitors, of course, but they’ve mostly been ice skaters. I will always associate the Bolero with the figure skating of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. They won their gold medal at the beginning of the 1980s, but performed the same complicated routine not long ago on “Dancing on Ice” – pretty remarkable for a pair approaching their sixties.
Nor should I be sneering at skiers when my own skills are less than praiseworthy. On my one and only ski vacation with my school at age 15, very few of us failed to make a spectacle of ourselves. A friend of mine with a hole in her heart was evacuated at speed from the mountain top, another crashed straight into a pole and was knocked out by her ski as it broke and yet another fell straight off the side of the mountain and landed face-down in an x-shape on the piste below.
As for me? Well, I crashed into the end of a line of people who were waiting for the ski lift and knocked them all over like dominos.
But all of this simply serves to prove that our bronze medal win was the most extraordinary moment of the Winter Olympics. From a country that wouldn’t recognize a snowboard if it fell over one came a champion of world-class proportions. And if there’s any lesson to be learned from this moment, it’s that perseverance does pay off if you have a century or so to wait for it.