Athletics: Choir boy leaps to his defence

Simon Turnbull finds a wounded Edwards keen to rule the world again
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The Independent Online
Britain's only world champion was content to be one step behind his team-mates yesterday as the sixth World Championships leapt into life. Far from the madding crowd of the Olympic Stadium in Athens, Jonathan Edwards cut a particularly singular figure as he limbered up under the shadow of the empty Tyne and Wear Stand at Gateshead Stadium. "I'm much better in my environment as long as possible," he said. "If I was in the athletes' village I'd just be sitting around getting bored, stewing about the competition."

Edwards, in fact, does not depart from Tyneside until tomorrow, the fourth day of competition in the Olympic Stadium. And, as he prepares to challenge for another place in the history books, the vicar's son and Born Again Christian is clearly not flying out to Greece on a wing and a prayer. He may have been mothballed for five weeks now but Edwards is ready to grasp the golden opportunity beckoning him. Ten years after Daley Thompson and Steve Cram fell short of the gold standard in Rome, he could end Britain's wait for the successful defence of a world title by one of its athletic sons or daughters.

The mere prospect brings a glint to his eyes. "It would be very exciting," he said. "To think of the athletes who have won world titles for Britain... it's like a who's who. I'd be tremendously proud to be the first British athlete to retain a world title. It's a bit of extra motivation for me, if you need any extra motivation going into the World Championships. Yeah, it makes it a little bit more special."

It is two years since Jonathan Edwards had such a golden glint. Twelve months ago, the golden boy of 1995, the Gateshead Harrier who triple jumped from zero to hero with his world record-breaking quantum leaps through the 18m and 60ft barriers at the World Championships in Gothenburg, was losing his sheen. A winter spent bearing the brunt of the nation's Olympic expectation had turned his hair grey. Silver in Atlanta, behind the American Kenny Harrison, seemed to blend in with the new colour scheme of things for the man L'Equipe dubbed "Jonathan Edwards Seagull," a reference to Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, the fictional bird which found spiritual enlightenment soaring above the flock in Richard Bach's 1970s bestseller.

Since Edwards crashed to earth in Sheffield on 29 June, with what proved to be a winning distance ahead of Harrison in the Securicor Games, the athletics world has been fearing another summer of grounded ambition for Britain's spring-heeled high-flier. But Edwards goes to Athens on top of the world rankings, with the 17.74m that won the European Cup competition in Munich, and on top of the world metaphorically too, despite the bruised left heel that has prompted his precautionary absence from the European circuit.

"I haven't attempted to jump since Sheffield," he said, "but once the season is under way I don't tend to jump in training anyway. It does still hurt a little but it hasn't stopped me from doing my normal training. If I'd had five weeks of inactivity it might be different. But I haven't. I've just missed three or four competitions; that's all. And I know I can jump on it. The problem happened in Munich, the week before Sheffield. I still jumped there, and I jumped well. I just haven't wanted to take any risks.

"If it does hurt in Athens it won't stop me. I'll have to be carried off on a stretcher. But it's not going to be like that. I don't think it's going to be a big problem. In fact, I think it might well work in my favour. I'll be fresh, very hungry and very motivated. I've got a healthy anticipation about it.

"My focus has not so much been 'I'm defending champion and everyone expects me to win' as 'Is my heel going to be alright?' And that has just sort of eased the pressure valve a little bit. Last year I was hoping I was going to go and win the Olympics without really being convinced that I could, whereas this year I believe I can go to the World Championships and jump well and have a good chance of winning."

There is little doubt that Edwards is more at ease with the world, and with himself, than he was a year ago. Japanese television and newspapermen from Italy, France and even the United States crowded into a Tyneside hotel to attend a press conference announcing his sponsorship deal with Puma in February last year. Last Monday, when he fronted the launch of Gateshead's Bupa Games, just the one man from London joined the local press corps to talk to him.

"I much prefer it this way," Edwards said. "It felt like people would pursue me to the ends of the earth last year, whereas this year I'm obviously not such a big story. It was always going to be that way. You're not always going to be in the limelight. Even if I'd jumped as well as I did in 1995 it wouldn't have created the same interest. You know, you can only write so many times that I look like 12 years old, that I've got a choirboy face and that I'm a vicar's son."

The cherubic 31-year-old collapsed into a laughing fit. He did so again when he was reminded that he'd confessed to feeling not so much like his stereotyped image as "a monster with two heads" after venturing into Europe's biggest shopping mall, the monstrous Gateshead Metro Centre, at the height of his fame.

"The thing was I was stupid," Edwards reflected. "I had to get a Christmas present for my wife, Alison. But I went on my own, in a tracksuit, two days after I'd won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Obviously I couldn't have been any more visible... Maybe I shouldn't have been walking around holding the trophy above my head."

It would be no laughing matter if the vicar's son with the choir boy's face found himself trapped in the same situation again this Christmas. And, Athens be warned, Jonathan Edwards is heading for the Olympic Stadium in a dangerous mood. "I feel like a caged lion waiting to get out," he said. Britain's wounded world champion is ready to pounce.