Phillips Idowu: London gold hope will know if he's been Tamghoed

Great Britain's top male athlete just gets better with age, but a young French rival is keeping him on his toes as he aims for glory in 2012. Simon Turnbull talks to Phillips Idowu
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The Independent Online

It has been a pretty good year for Phillips Idowu, the Londoner who landed the World Championship triple jump crown in 2009. In 2010, at the age of 31, he has hopped, stepped and jumped to a lifetime best, 17.81 metres, and taken the main title of the year, at the European Championships in Barcelona in July, despite the emergence of a major new force in the triple jump, the prodigiously gifted young Parisian Teddy Tamgho. As he prepares to enter the pre-Olympic year of 2011, Britain's leading male athlete must be more than satisfied with his last 12 months.

"Definitely," Idowu says. "It's always a great feeling to go into a major champs and perform well. I won the title which everyone in Europe was aiming for, in a pretty difficult event. A lot of the top guys in the world in 2010 were European and the No 1 in the world was Teddy. So to go out there and put in a performance like I did, pretty much dominate the competition from start to finish, was good... I don't know what that comment about being 31 years old has got to do with anything, mind."

Mention of Idowu's age is intended entirely as a compliment. He will be 32 when he defends his world title in Daegu, South Korea, next August and 33 by the time the London Olympics come round in 2012. The fact that he produced a personal best at 31 to secure his European gold showed that the Belgrave Harrier is getting better with age. "Yeah, I've been saying that over the last couple of years," he says, having established that no ageist sleight is intended. "In my 20s I had a lot of time out with injuries and I competed at major champs carrying injuries. It's only since about 2008 that I've been able to do things a lot smarter – do the right stuff technically in training to keep myself in one piece."

It was in 2008 that Idowu uprooted his training base from north London and started grafting in Birmingham, under the guidance of Aston Moore, the former international triple jumper – a veteran of the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and a Commonwealth bronze medallist in 1978 and 1982 – who moulded Ashia Hansen into a world indoor champion and world indoor record holder in the event.

According to Christian Olsson, the Swede who won the Olympic triple jump title in 2004 and who is on the comeback trail following injury, Moore has played a pivotal role in Idowu's emergence as a supreme championship performer as a thirtysomething. As he did in Barcelona in July, Idowu delivered an outdoor personal best when he won the world title in Berlin last year, eight months past his 30th birthday. "Phillips started his career not being a championship jumper and he's turned that around," Olsson says. "That's got a lot to do with his coach. If you have a good coach it points you in the right direction and Phillips has been motivated to change that pattern."

Idowu acknowledges this: "I do have to take my hat off to Aston. I owe him a lot. From the age of 21, when I was emerging on the scene, everyone always said I had the ability to jump far and win titles. I just think I spent too many years in the wrong situation, doing the wrong kind of things. The ability to do what I'm doing now was always there. It just wasn't nurtured in the right way.

"Aston and I have a good relationship. Aston has the knowledge to put schedules and sessions together that work for me, keep me injury free, and make sure that I produce my best jumps when I need to produce my best jumps."

Idowu can only hope that the formula keeps propelling him in a forward direction. The Londoner has won three of the four major championship titles now: world in 2009, European in 2010 and Commonwealth in 2006. He has also won the world indoor and European indoor titles. The only medal missing from his expanding collection is the most prized one of all: Olympic gold.

Idowu missed it by a tantalising five centimetres in Beijing in 2008, taking silver behind Nelson Evora of Portugal. If he is to strike Olympic gold on home ground in 2012 – and, indeed, retain his world title in South Korea next summer – the Hackney man will probably need to keep on bettering himself. If he does not, the chances are that he will be Tamghoed.

He must have felt like that when he sat watching the world indoor championships from Doha on television in March, having decided to stay at home after the birth of his second child rather than defend the title he won in Valencia in 2008. With the last jump of the competition, in the final event on the final day of the championships, Tamgho announced himself as the biggest triple-jump talent since Jonathan Edwards, setting a world indoor record of 17.90m

Tamgho proceeded to uncork a stunning 17.98m at the New York Diamond League meeting in June, coming within two centimetres of joining Edwards and Kenny Harrison in the 18m club. However, though the 21-year-old's ability is beyond question he has yet to find the consistency to match it. He beat Idowu in the Big Apple but then lost to him at the European Team Championships in Bergen and at the European Championships in Barcelona, managing a modest 17.45m in the latter after his preparation was hampered by a calf problem. Since October the young Frenchman has been training at Alicante in Spain, under the guidance of Ivan Pedroso, a Cuban who won Olympic gold as a long jumper.

Having spent his early years on the international scene battling against Edwards, the Gateshead Harrier who took the triple jump to a new dimension with his world record distance of 18.29m back in 1995, Idowu has suddenly found himself facing an opponent of potentially similar stature. Tamgho is his junior by 10 years and can be expected to have his best years still ahead of him. It is a rivalry that Idowu clearly relishes.

"Teddy and I are great friends," he says. "He's a great athlete; anyone can see that. And he's a great kid. I speak to him often. I give him whatever advice I can, from my experience.

"I've never had it easy. When Jonathan Edwards was around I had to beat the world record holder if I was going to win titles. I've never been able to rest on my laurels. When Teddy came out in the indoor season this year and jumped phenomenally well, that was inspiring. I know I can't go out and win titles with 17.60m, 17.70m. It's not good enough. I have to make sure I'm pushing the boundaries, getting ever closer to that 18m barrier... I was going to say in order to guarantee gold medals but that might not guarantee gold medals. I'm glad it's tough in the triple jump, because when I get the gold medals it shows the calibre of athlete I am."

After making the decision not to defend his Commonwealth title in Delhi this year – "because of all the media and negative press surrounding the Games" – Idowu and Moore worked out an 18-month plan, leading up to the Olympics. The schedule includes just two competitions in the 2011 indoor season: the Aviva British Grand Prix in Birmingham on 19 February and the GE Galan meet in Stockholm three days later. It does not feature a date with Tamgho in Paris at the European Indoor Championships in early March.

"Sitting down with Aston, we decided that my biggest priority is to make sure that I win the gold medal in London," Idowu says. "The European indoors just doesn't fit into the plan. It'll be great for Teddy. He's jumping in front of a home crowd. He'll probably jump well and put in a good performance but a year later he's got to come to London and compete against me in front of my home crowd. It's going to be fun. It's going to be an exciting couple of years in the triple jump."

Phillips Idowu will compete at the Aviva Grand Prix in Birmingham on 19 February. For tickets, go to uka.org.uk or phone 08000 556 056

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