CALGARY, FEB. 23 -- Eddy (the Eagle) Edwards didn't start down the 90-meter ski jump today as much as he seemed to sort of lapse down it, now-or-never, what the hell, his great frantic chin jutting into the wind, his hour come 'round at last, the crowd chanting "Ed-dy! Ed-dy!" ... and then, finally, with all auguries defied, and with all the grace of a thrown wash rag, he launched, he flew.

All weekend, there had been rumors that the British team, the International Ski Federation -- somebody, anybody -- would stop Eddy from jumping, would save him from himself. Now he was endless seconds past his customary prayer of "May I survive," stretched out in a hopeless yearning for the brown horizon of the Alberta plains, with the helicopters hovering in a sky with a daytime moon.

"Ed-dy! Ed-dy!"

Listening to the shouts ricocheting off the snow, you couldn't help but worry that there was an overtone of a crowd looking up at a window ledge and shouting "Jump! Jump!" Before Eddy's trial run today, the announcer said, somewhat ominously, "You want him? You got him." But Calgarians and Olympic visitors were crazy with love for Eddy, like children fighting over a bewildered puppy.

Sportswriters applauded when he came into the room. Backslappers and handshakers forced him to Banff, where he could practice jumping in peace. He was everybody's home team. A British tabloid announced on its front page: "Eagle Eddy's a bigger draw than Elvis." The Calgary Sun ran a picture of Britain's Prince Edward under the caption "Britain's Other Eddy."

"I love it, it's great," he says.

"Ed-dy!" The poor German who jumped before him had to go down the slope to the sound of this mad chanting. No matter that he beat Eddy's jump of 64 meters by about 50 percent.

Why does the crowd love Eddy so?

He is a 24-year-old plasterer from Cheltenham, England, a working-class eccentric who started ski jumping two years ago at Lake Placid, N.Y., with a pair of $60 skis, a helmet he tied on with string and boots so big he had to wear six pairs of socks.

He is serious. He may wear pink-rimmed glasses that give him the blank, pitiful gaze of an angora rabbit, he may have slept at a mental hospital and lived on bread and jam when he trained in Finland, but he is serious.

He has cadged coaching from the Americans, Canadians, Swiss, West Germans, Austrians, East Germans, "even the Spanish," Eddy says. "I know I'm not a world-class jumper, but at the moment I'm the best jumper Great Britain has. I'm going for the gold as much as anybody."

When he finished 58th in the 70-meter jump, the Spanish were 57th, though they were a sizable 13.5 meters in front of Eddy's 55 meters, compared with Finnish gold medalist Matti Nykanen's 89.5 meters.

"I'd like to beat somebody," he says. "I've always tried to be the fastest, the strongest. I'd like to beat {Bernat} Sola {Pujol}, of Spain."

If he weren't serious, there wouldn't be any irony in calling him "the Eagle" and chanting for him so wildly. Here in wholesome, straightforward Canada, land of big chins and good neighbors, where a man can draw a cheering crowd on a Calgary sidewalk by lighting a sparkler and shouting "Ca-na-da!" there's a shortage of irony that the Olympics do nothing to alleviate.

Then there was Eddy (actually named Michael), and suddenly he was being courted for appearances and endorsements by a vodka company, a cigar company and the media. The British team put him in seclusion after he appeared with a nightclub act called "Red, White and Hot." Said Kevin Ryan of Vancouver, British Columbia: "There's some humor in it, but I think a guy should have to have some winnings to get into the Olympics. And I'm worried this guy is going to get hurt, exploited."

I started with a school ski trip. I was 13. I was no better than anyone else, I was just crazy. I always tried to be the first down, the fastest. Somebody bet me a beer I couldn't jump across the road at the bottom. I did, and hit a fence.

All week, after Eddy finished last in the 70-meter jump, the public had been buying Eddy the Eagle T-shirts, sending him money, shaking his hand and slapping his back. Meanwhile, Rob McCormack, chief of competition for the ski jumpers, was saying things like: "I've seen compound fractures with blood spurting 25 feet across the snow. It's not a pretty sight. From what I saw in the 70-meter, I would recommend the Eagle don't fly."

Once when I was 11, there was a girl I wanted to impress. I was riding my bike and I went off a three-foot wall ... I took about 20 or 30 stitches in my face.

The frightening thing is, Eddy launches into the air going as fast as the best of them -- he was going 94.8 kilometers per hour in his best 90-meter jump compared with Nykanen's 95.5, for instance. So theoretically, at that moment of takeoff, Eddy could jump just as far as Nykanen. Of course, Nykanen uncoils into an airfoil of wind-tunnel subtlety, while Eddy goes through a routine that has the sad, frenzied purposefulness of a swimming cat, a position that does not seem to have been moved any closer to perfection by the time Eddy has spent mounted on the top of a car, riding down the roads of England, leaning forward in takeoff position, a roof-mounted hood ornament.

"Ed-dy!" For a moment, as he wilted toward earth, there was the purely mathematical possibility that his floundering would hit on a gold-medal posture purely by accident. What if it happened? Couldn't an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters write "Hamlet," too?

I was playing at a building site with my brother. We'd made a seesaw out of a plank. I jumped off it too early, the plank came up and hit me in the jaw and I bit off my tongue. Luckily they could sew it back on.

Literary references come to mind: Icarus flying so close to the sun that his wings melted, or the mother in "Death of a Salesman" saying, "A terrible thing is happening. Attention must be paid."

And one hard-bitten sportswriter was getting dry laughs before the jump with a proposed lead: "On the last day of his life, Eddy Edwards ascended to the top of the 90-meter ski jump and waved to the crowd below. He then plummeted to his death. Police ruled it a suicide."

Behind the hype, there were hints of moral consternation among the media. One Italian journalist found Eddy an insult to the Winter Olympics, and called his performance "ski dropping."

"He's not a type for European people," said Marcel Gyr, a reporter for the Tages Anzeiger in Zurich. "He's too crazy. He needs the U.S. or Canada. In Germany, it wouldn't be possible -- he's too simple."

"When you have cheers for a performer like Eddy Edwards, you don't have the appreciation for the sport," said Torbjorn Yggeseth of the International Ski Federation. "We have thousands of Eddy Edwardses in Norway, and we never let them jump."

"It's typically British humor," said David Waller, a surveyor from London who walked through the crowd shouting, "Eddy for prime minister!"

"We need more clowns in this business," said Nykanen.

"I think it's a howl," said United States jumper Christopher Hastings.

Ski jumping is a sport that has a tinge of the bizarro about it, like jai alai or ice boating. Eddy only brings the joke out of the closet.

Is it possible that Eddy the Eagle is a hero for flying in the face of so many of the Nordic virtues that the Winter Olympics put before us like an allegory -- control, a hyperborean purity, the beauty of solitary struggle and the kind of money that it takes to hang around ski slopes?

Eddy is always out of both control and money. His struggles are squalidly public. The impassive barbarians of the north have terrorized the world for 1,500 years, and now comes Eddy, the apotheosis of the muddle-through ethos that becomes the pride of declining empires, British or American, of a spit-and-baling-wire attitude in a place where countries could spend a million dollars on a sled.

As Derek Hodgson, a 15-year-old Calgarian, said: "He's not hurting nobody. He's putting some fun back in it. It's a little too serious, the Olympics. I was over where the athletes are staying, at the university, and they're so worried about terrorists they've got snipers on the roof -- you can hear them walking up there." As Baron de Coubertin said when he revived the Olympics at the turn of the century: "Let the games be joyful."

The other night, the 50,000 people in Calgary's Olympic Plaza to watch a medal presentation joined in the anthem of nobodies and everymen all over North America, and maybe the world, the country-western song that goes, "Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way."

It was part of the same joke that had them cheering for Eddy on his last jump. As the first British jumper in maybe half a century, he'd already set a new British record of 71 meters in his first heat. "Ed-dy!" Now it was time to go for the gold. One could only hope that he did not see the judges marching up the hill especially for him, to be there where he landed. Down he came, up he went. "Ed-dy!" The Eagle landed 67 meters later, dead last but still alive. He was waving wildly at the crowd from a spot on the slope that Nykanen would shortly afterward fly 50 meters beyond on his way to the gold medal.

"Oh terrific, absolutely great," he said at the bottom, as the media mobbed him, all except for a knot of Austrians snapping, "Okay, Eddy, go" and "Eddy has had his 10 seconds."

"Ed-dy!"

"In another four years, I'll be there," he said.

There were still worlds to conquer, as Japanese jumper Masaru Nagaoka proved when asked about the Eddy phenomenon:

"Eddy? Eddy?"