Athletics: A spring back in his step

Simon Turnbull finds Jonathan Edwards has emerged a stronger man from a personal wilderness
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JONATHAN Edwards shook his head, swallowed his shark steak, and rested his knife and fork on his plate. The only British athlete to hit the gold standard at a global championship since 1993 had been asked if he felt he had anything to prove after two years of silver linings. "No," he said. "Part of the problem is that I don't feel I've got anything to prove. If I never jumped again, what I've done is substantially more than I would have expected to in my career. I suppose I might derive some small amount of pleasure from coming out and jumping 18 metres again because I think probably a lot of people think, 'Oh, well, he's had his day. But that's not in any way a major motivation."

Motivation has been a problem for Edwards ever since he triple jumped through the 18m and 60ft barriers in the summer of 1995. In the process he took himself and his event to a new dimension, just like Jesse Owens with his 8.13m long jump at Ann Arbor in 1935 and Bob Beamon with his quantum leap of 8.90m at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Having achieved all-time greatness, following his wind-assisted 18.43m at the Europa Cup in Lille with a world-record 18.29m at the World Championship in Gothenburg, the spring-heeled Gateshead Harrier has fallen short of the expectation since thrust upon him. He was second to the American Kenny Harrison in the Olympics two years ago and finished runner-up in the World Championships to Yoelbi Quesada of Cuba last summer.

On both occasions he was unlucky; in Atlanta he would have snatched gold had his big-toe not crept on to the take-off board when he launched his final effort, while in Athens he carried a heel injury that had kept him out of action for six weeks. As he looks to the future, though, the disarmingly frank and self-effacing Edwards admits he has struggled to come to terms with his soaringly successful summer of 1995.

"I've analysed it a lot," he said, still tracksuited at lunch after a morning circuit-training session at Gateshead Stadium, "because the last two years have been very hard. I've not particularly enjoyed athletics. It's been a bit more of a burden than a joy. Yes, the expectation has been a factor. But I think being the world record holder has in some ways become a de-motivation. It can have negative connotations, mentally. You think, 'nobody has ever jumped further than me'. I sometimes wonder if somebody else broke my world record, whether suddenly the sport would change for me.

"Also, I've always been very vocal in saying to people that I have done my athletics as an expression of my faith, to glorify God. But I've had to ask myself how much of that has actually been true. Has it really just been about myself and a personal challenge, and now that I've jumped so far that personal challenge isn't as strong as it was? Maybe that's why I've struggled with my motivation. But I think I'm much more focused now on why I'm doing it rather than thinking 'How do I do it?' I think that's been an important change: to put my faith at the centre of what I'm doing. It's been a time of soul-searching really."

The soul-searching for some athletes would have been whether to seek an answer from the tablet or from the needle. But Edwards, the son of an Anglican minister, has always drawn his particular strength from his Christian faith. And now, having squared his towering athletic achievement with his spiritual self, he is ready to launch down the triple jump runway with renewed resolve. He has decided to take a metaphorical step backwards in order to make the giant hop, step and jump he feels still lies ahead of him at the age of 31.

For the first time in five years Edwards is contesting an indoor season, and he has already struck gold. A fortnight ago he won the 60m sprint title at the North Eastern Counties Championships at Jarrow. On Thursday night, despite easing down, he equalled Gateshead Stadium's indoor 50m record, 5.9sec, at a monthly winter standards meeting. His first triple jump competition of the year is on Saturday in Stange, Norway. His schedule, which also includes the Bupa Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham on 15 February, is geared towards the European Indoor Championships in Valencia at the end of next month. The motivation, however, is not purely gold. For the first time in three years, Edwards can see a tape measure of progress stretching out in front of him.

"I've only once jumped over 17m indoors," he said. "I did 17.16m in Birmingham in 1993. A personal best would be a great start. It's been a while since I've had one of them. Then there's the British record [17.31m by Keith Connor in 1981] and the world record [17.83m by Aliecer Urrutia of Cuba last year]. I'll have to be in very good shape and jumping very well to break the world record but, having said that, I know I'm capable of jumping 18.43m. I've done it outdoors. So it's achievable, and that's exciting.

"I think I needed a short-term goal of an indoor season after the frustrations of last summer. I'd worked very hard, in lots of different ways. I felt I was on track to recapture some of the form from '95. I jumped 17.74m in poor conditions at the Europa Cup in Munich, which would have been worth 18m on a good day with a bit of a breeze behind. Ironically, it was on that jump that I injured my heel. The week after that, virtually on one leg, I jumped 17.54m at Sheffield, beating Kenny Harrison. Again, on that day if I hadn't had the problem with my heel I'm sure I would have jumped 18m.

"I don't see 18m as a barrier. I'm quite capable of jumping that, and jumping further. I don't think the world record is out of sight by any means. It's just a question of getting back into that physical and mental shape I was in back in 1995."

It is clear, as Edwards polishes off his mid-day meal, that the hunger for his chosen profession has returned. He may yet, as one expert calculated from computer analysis of his world championship series in Gothenburg, push forward the triple jump barrier to the 19m mark and perhaps beyond. But there are other fresh challenges beckoning beyond the indoor season to keep his appetite sharp. Edwards has yet to strike gold at the European Championships or the Commonwealth Games, the two major championships this summer.

British athletics could do with striking gold too, of course. Edwards is one of the creditors still awaiting settlement following the financial collapse of the British Athletic Federation. It has been reported that he is owed some pounds 75,000 in appearance money.

"That figure's not far away from the truth," he said. "But it looks like the creditors might not end up with a bad deal: perhaps in excess of 50p in the pounds 1, which perhaps in reality is all we deserved last year. A lot of things have been said about greedy athletes but I think if the full extent of the federation's problems had been known the vast majority of athletes would have accepted a 50 per cent pay cut.

"It is quite possible that the whole thing will be much more professional now, with the commercial side of the sport taken out and a new governing body set in place, funded through the Sports Council, and much more streamlined. If that happens, it is what everyone has been saying has needed to happen for years and years. It is just unfortunate the way it has come about. But perhaps in a few years people will look back and say it was the best thing that could have happened.

"Ultimately it's down to the athletes, isn't it ? You can have the most professionally run sport around but if at the top level we don't deliver then it's not going to capture the imagination again, the way it has done in previous years."

Like it did in the summer of 1995, he might have mentioned, when an unassuming Englishman leapt into the world record books.