Edwards glories in the leap of the faithful

A wondrous year, which was capped by yesterday's award of an MBE, has not turned the head of a down-to-earth new sporting hero, says Geoffrey Beattie
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Jonathan Edwards is a remarkable athlete. In the World Championships in Gothenburg in August, he broke the world record for the triple jump not once but twice in successive jumps. And yet he describes his triple- jump accomplishments as "jumping a long way into a sand-pit".

He seems to play down his achievements to a bizarre level. This kind of language makes it all sound like child's play, which clearly it is not. Jonathan is also a committed Christian in a world, in his words, "consumed by Satan". So when we met in Newcastle for Radio Five Live, I wanted to find out who this Jonathan Edwards really was, this enigma who seems to find it difficult - psychologically speaking - to take in all his world-class achievements.

The starting point was to ask what he thinks about when he is waiting to jump all that way, into the sand-pit. "I'm not aware of anything in particular that I do at those times," he said. "It's not like Mike Powell, the long jumper; he goes through a visualisation process - for the first six strides, he's like a raging bull, then he's like a gazelle and then finally he's like a leopard. But with me there's nothing like that. I get on the runway, I am 100 per cent into it and then off I go."

This makes it all sound very easy, so does this extreme mental focus just come naturally to him? "I've worked on the whole mental side of things in my weight-training in particular. There's a lot going on in the gym, a lot of outside influences, people chatting away, wanting to take my attention from what I'm doing and I try to focus on that lift and cut everything else off.

"The guy that I work with on my weight-training tells me to just talk with my mouth and not with my head, just forget about what everybody's saying and just get on. That's been ingrained in me - I was good at it anyway, but it's just become slightly more formalised through my training. But it is a quite natural thing.

"I'm very different now from what I was. What's developed over the past two or three years in me is the capacity to be independent. I used to be very worried all the time about what people thought of me. But now I've become much more able to make a decision based on what I feel I should do, regardless of anyone else. I can now go down a line which I believe is right and go for something without worrying what everybody else is thinking. There's a verse in the Bible, in Proverbs, which says that the fear of man is a snare - if you are so worried about what everybody else is thinking you just end up tying yourself in knots."

Was he very hesitant before making any decisions in the past? "Very much so. I was a bit of a girl's blouse to be honest, a bit woofy as a boy, if I can use that expression. My dad or mum will disagree with me, but I was very diffident. I didn't like to do things on my own. I wouldn't even read a lesson in church in public, I'd be so nervous about what people might think.

"I've probably just developed as a person in the past two or three years. I had a wonderful upbringing but it was quite sheltered in many respects. I've developed since I've left home and moved up to Newcastle after university in 1987."

It was then time to reflect on Gothenburg and the World Championships. He had just broken the world record - did he think that he could do it all again and more in the next jump?

"I've always got a very good idea of how I feel physically and whether or not I'm going to jump well. With the second jump, I knew that I was still focused and physically I was still up for it. So I knew I could still jump well, but with the third jump I knew nothing was going to happen. It's like that in training. I get to the point in a training session, when I'm on the end of a run-up and I know, no matter what I do, it's not going to happen."

1995 was an absolutely remarkable year for him. Was there any indication that it was going to be quite so outstanding? "No. 1994 was a very bad year, following on from a good 1993. I'd trained very hard, but then I got glandular fever. So at the end of 1994, I had a long rest. A lot of people are very sceptical about viruses and think that maybe you are making it all up - you've just had a bad year and you're trying to blame it on something. So I went into my winter training for 1995 in January very low-key, with no great expectations. I was still not totally sure in my own mind that I was 100 per cent physically fit. I wasn't sleeping particularly well. I was obsessed with my pulse - because I know that once my pulse goes below 60 I'm OK. I went to America in February and things started to turn around a little bit then, mentally, and then I started to train really well - my weights improved, my jumping was good in training. So I thought I was going to have a good season, but not to the level that I did have."

How easy it was for him to suddenly find himself transmogrified into the world champion and the world record holder; the BBC Sports Personality of the Year; an idol to many?

"I think my way of coping with it is that it's still somewhere away in the distance and I'm just getting on with what I normally did. I look at it and I just shake my head and think that's incredible and I'm very thankful for what's happened. But I feel like exactly the same person, I don't feel any different. It's weird, it's still weird. I've never really talked to anybody about this. But take the likes of Linford Christie - he gives the impression that he was born to greatness and that it's no great surprise that he's doing what he is doing, yet for me it is an enormous surprise. I sometimes wonder if I can do it all again."

Edwards's religious convictions are well known. Did, then, he feel extremely lucky about the events of the past year or blessed in some way?

"I do feel blessed. After I'd jumped in the European Cup, Roger Black said to his coach: 'I've got to get God,' he said, 'it's obviously working'. I believe God has blessed me and it's ultimately because of His plan and purpose that I am where I am today and that I've done what I've done. I'm thankful in that respect."

Did he pray for sporting success? "Yeah. I didn't used to, but I have done. I've asked God to make me successful. I do want to win and I'm honest with that, but at the same time, it's not everything."

Have there been any pitfalls to praying for success? "Oh, there can be. I've no guarantee that prayers are going to be answered. There are certain things that the Bible makes clear if you pray for you can expect answers, but success isn't one of them. But my philosophy of life is to glorify God in what I do. I've always held strong Christian views. When I was six, my mum said that I came to her and said that I'd asked Jesus into my life."

For someone who feels the presence of God so much at work in his everyday life, did he also feel the presence of the devil at work throughout society?

"Very much so. It's stated very clearly in the Bible but I look around and see the type of world that we live in and, yes, I do see it - with all the injustice and poverty in the world. I also think that there are a lot of temptations from the devil. I think in success there are more temptations, and more subtle temptations, from the devil than in failure. In failure you can say: 'I'm no good, there's nothing in me', and you can throw yourself totally on to God. But with success comes power - people want to listen to my opinions and you can start thinking: 'Oh yeah, actually, I know quite a lot.' Vanity is a powerful vice."

One intriguing aspect of Edwards' faith was his decision to abandon his principle of never competing on a Sunday, the day of rest. He missed the 1991 World Championships because of this religious principle, but in 1993 he had suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, changed his mind. Why?

"It's very much a question of conscience. Through my own Bible study, I came to realise that it wasn't necessary to have this Sabbath when I didn't do any sport. I'm still very much in agreement with the rest principle on Sunday, but it wasn't something that was obligatory for me. So I had no problem with competing on a Sunday, but I started to wonder what people might think of the reversal of my decision. I'd made such a stand over not competing on a Sunday. But this is perhaps where the idea of being independent comes in. I thought that people should make their own decisions, based on what they see of me as a person."

Perhaps this decision to start competing on a Sunday was an important stepping-stone in his own psychological development?

"I think it probably was. For example, my parents were not for the decision and, given the strong influence that they have had over me, it was quite a big thing for me to go ahead and do it regardless."

But how easy was it to live with this dramatic turn-about? How did it feel to compete for money on the Sabbath?

"Well, actually it was the European Cup so it wasn't strictly for money. I didn't actually get paid, so that complicating factor was removed. The funny thing is that on my first jump I had a massive foul. My foot must have been two inches over the board and they gave it to me. So draw your own conclusions."

Was it a religious experience for him to be sailing through the air further than any mortal before? His answer was an emphatic no.

"God is very much part of it, but it's not a religious experience. My feelings out on the track are very similar to most other athletes - a mixture of fear, of excitement, of wanting to do well. I must point out that I've always felt that I was equally blessed when things weren't going well, because these periods have given me the critical perspective so that I don't get carried away with what's happened this year. The down times that I've had, not qualifying for the Olympics in 1992 and the virus in 1994, have been the most incredible times of personal character development, particularly of spiritual growth. I look on these periods as preparing me for the success that I've had now."

Finally, what of Edwards's future in athletics and beyond?

"I think that I could possibly carry on until the Olympics in 2000. But, being an athlete, you've always got to be flexible with your plans - an injury could come along and you could lose form. I feel that I'd like to be involved full-time in Christian work of some description. At the moment, I'm doing a theology degree by distance learning, so that when I do retire as an athlete I will have a qualification which might open doors in other areas."

Geoffrey Beattie is professor of psychology at Manchester University. His series of interviews with leading sports personalities, Head to Head, continues with Jonathan Edwards on Radio Five Live tomorrow at 8.05pm.