Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards, nicknamed ‘Eddie’ since his schooldays, found fame at the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary in 1988, where he became the first competitor to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping since Percy Legrand in 1936. Although little-known outside the world of skiing, Edwards was, in fact, the British record holder for ski jumping and had competed, albeit without distinction, in the FIS Nordic Ski Championships at Obertsdorf, in the Bavarian Alps, in 1987. As such, he already had a ‘cult’ following and, in Calgary, was greeted by a group of fans sporting a banner proclaiming, ‘Welcome to Calgary Eddie The Eagle’, thereby coining the nickname that has remained with Edwards ever since.

Edwards finished last, by a wide margin, in both the normal-hill and large-hill events but, although still 15 metres or more behind the shortest jump recorded by the second-last competitor, Canadian Tod Gilman, in the latter event, still extended his own British record to 71 metres. Instantly recognisable by his trademark ‘beer bottle’ spectacles – he was chronically long-sighted, which added another dangerous dimension to ski jumping – Edwards was a press man’s dream. Congenial and self-effacing, but nonetheless fearless and dedicated, he received more media attention than almost anyone else at the Games.

 

Despite Edwards’ conspicuous lack of success, the story of a formerly down-and-out downhill skier, who turned to ski jumping as a last resort, now living the ‘Olympic Dream’ captured the imagination of the wider public. His exploits, including his inspirational backstory, made back and front page news across the world during the Games and beyond. Edwards’ life provided the basis for the tongue-in-cheek biopic ‘Eddie The Eagle’, starring Taron Egerton in the title role and Hugh Jackman as Edwards’ coach, Bronson Peary, released in 2016.

Shirley Babashoff

Walter Hagen, a.k.a. ‘The Father of Professional Golf’, once said, ‘No one remembers who came in second.’ Sadly, his comment applies perfectly well to Shirley Babashoff, who was, in her heyday, considered one of the greatest swimmers in US history, but remains largely unknown to a modern audience.

Once dubbed the ‘female Mark Spitz’, Babashoff won a total of eight Olympic medals. At the Munich Olympics in 1972, she won a team gold medal in the 4 x 100-metres freestyle relay and two individual silver medals, in the 100-metres freestyle and 200-metres freestyle. At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, she won another team gold medal in the 4 x 100-metres freestyle, a team silver medal in the 4 x 100-metres medley relay and three more individual silver medals, in the 200-metres freestyle, 400-metres freestyle and 800-metres freestyle.

To add insult to injury, in all her individual events in Montreal, Babashoff was beaten by a swimmer from East Germany, which, it was later revealed, was operating a state-sponsored doping program at the time. She did attempt to draw attention to the fact, but was pilloried by the media and portrayed as nothing more than a surly, dissatisfied loser. Even years later, when official documents revealed the extent of the doping program, the results were allowed to stand by the International Olympic Committee.

Reflecting on her misfortune, Babashoff said, ‘I worked so hard for what I didn’t get. I had a bad taste in my mouth for years.’ She added, ‘It would have changed my life dramatically if I had come back from Montreal with all the medals that I deserved. I would have had some endorsements. Money can change your life if you have nothing and get a bunch of endorsements.’

Jimmy White

No site dedicated to the sportspeople who, for whatever reason(s), failed to fulfil their potential would be complete without the inclusion of the granddaddy of them all, English professional snooker player James ‘Jimmy’ White. A precocious teenager, White became English Amateur Champion in 1979 and World Amateur Champion in 1980. Having turned professional, he was still a month shy of his nineteenth birthday when he made his debut in the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield in April, 1981. He lost 10-8 to the eventual winner, Steve Davis, in the first round on that occasion.

White reached the first of six World Championship finals in 1984, again losing out to Davis, 18-16, in the best-of-35-frames match. He did not reach the final again until 1990, but having lost 18-12 to ‘The Wonder Bairn’, Stephen Hendry, he would fall victim to the Scotsman in three of the next four World Championship finals. In between times, White was losing finalist again, going down 18-11 to John Parrott, but it was Hendry who was his principal antagonist. In 1992, White surrendered a 14-8 lead to lose 18-14 and, following an 18-5 drubbing in 1993, missed a routine black, off its spot, when leading in the deciding frame in 1994, eventually losing 18-17.

White, who turns 60 in May, 2022, is still on the World Snooker Tour, albeit thanks to two-year invitational card, which will keep him in the professional ranks until the end of the 2022/23 season. However, time is running out for the man they still call ‘The Whirlwind’ and he seems destined to be known for ever more as the ‘best player never to win the World Chanpionship’. Let’s not forget, though, that he has won 23 professional events, including the UK Championship, Masters and eight other ranking titles, and was ranked in the top 16 players in the world for over two decades.

Tim Henman

Tim Henman officially retired from professional tennis in September, 2007, but for more than a decade previously had been the ‘great British hope’ for victory in the Men’s Singles at Wimbledon, last won by Fred Perry in 1936. However, before the arrival of Andy Murray, who turned professional – and played Wimbledon for the first time, on a wild card – in 2005, Henman was, without doubt, the best British male player of the Open Era and, in fact, since Perry himself.

Year after year, Henman bore the weight of not-altogether-realistic expectation in SW19 but, at the time of his retirement, said, ‘Am I disappointed I didn’t win it [Wimbledon]? Yes I am, but this is as good as I could have been, so I don’t have too many doubts.’ Lingering self-doubt may have been the root cause of inconsistency in his play and, indeed, his less-than-convincing, ‘limp-fisted’ celebrations, from time to time. However, accusations of ‘choking’ under pressure – as levelled by Pete Sampras, among others – are probably a little unfair; on the whole, Henman did pretty well with the tools with which he was equipped.

All told, Henman reached 28 ATP singles finals during his career, winning 11 of them. At his peak, was ranked number four in the world. At Wimbledon, he reached the semi-finals in the Men’s Singles in four of the five years between 1998 and 2002, losing to Pete Sampras in four sets in both 1998 and 1999, Goran Ivanišević in five sets in 2001 and Lleyton Hewitt in three sets in 2002. Henman also reached the semi-finals of both the French Open and the US Open in 2004, losing in four sets to Guillermo Coria in Paris and in straight sets to Roger Federer in New York.