Athletics: Akinsanya's call a great leap for the journeymen

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The Independent Online

Femi Akinsanya has good reason to recall the first time he encountered Jonathan Edwards. "It was in a league match back in the 1980s," he said. "Jonathan did the triple jump and then went off to throw in the javelin to get some points. I actually beat him by a couple of centimetres." In the triple jump, that is.

It was Akinsanya's one and only victory over the man who took the triple jump to a new level - 18.29m, to be precise - before hanging up his spikes at the World Championships last August. While Edwards progressed from that early league defeat to set three world records and win a full set of major championship gold medals (one Olympic, two World, one European, one Commonwealth), Akinsanya had to settle for something less than ground- breaking leaps and bounds, and hops. Still, at 34, he is justly proud of his own achievements, and it just so happens that the task of filling Edwards' shoes for the opening international fixture of 2004 has fallen to the self-effacing Peterborough man.

With Edwards' more likely long-term successors (Phillips Idowu, Larry Achike, Tosin Oke and Jonathan Moore) all unavailable for selection, Akinsanya has been picked for the Norwich Union International, an indoor match pitting Great Britain against Sweden, Russia, Italy and a World Select team, at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow next Saturday. In the same meeting a year ago the spotlight was on Edwards versus Christian Olsson, the pretender to the great Briton's global crown. This time, Olsson lines up as the current world champion, with Edwards in the commentary box and Akinsanya in the Great Britain vest.

"What's it like stepping into Jonathan Edwards' shoes?" Akinsanya said, pondering the question put to him after his day's work as a supervisor for National Cash Registers. "Jonathan's the world-record holder and he's been No 1 for so long. You can't just step into the shoes of someone like that.

"I've got my own agenda. Jonathan was absolutely fantastic. He revolutionised triple jump, took it to another dimension. And you're asking someone who's jumped 16.58m to step into his shoes? That's impossible to do.

"It's quite scary, because people will look on TV and go, 'All right, Jonathan's not competing. Who's next?' And they'll see someone go down the runway and jump, what, 16m, hopefully 16.20m, 16.30m? And they'll go, 'Well, that's not very good', because they've been used to such a high standard.

"It's a very difficult situation. But, like I said, I've got my own agenda - about where I'm going and where I want to be as an athlete.

"For me, that's giving it one last go to try to get to the Olympics. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, then I'll be quite happy with what I've achieved as a triple jumper."

And with good reason. Back in 1998, Akinsanya was a member of the English track-and-field team at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. He finished seventh. His personal best, 16.58m, dates back to 1996, but last year he jumped 16.44m. The Olympic qualifying standard, 16.95m, is not beyond the realms of possibility. And merely making it to Athens would be the proudest achievement of all for the pride of Peterborough Athletics Club.

It would be a hard-earned achievement, too. At the top end of the world rankings, in Edwards' former place as global No 1, Olsson lives and trains as a tax exile in Monte Carlo. As world No 85, Akinsanya has to get through a day's work before he gets down to the training track at night. "I get to the track and I'm absolutely shattered," he said. "It's difficult, but I want to give it one last go this year, just really go for it."

At 34, and with his personal finish line within sight, Akinsanya has no pretension to being the future of British triple jumping. "If you're talking about someone who could step into Jonathan's shoes, then you'd have to say Phillips Idowu," he said. "For someone at such a young age [25] to have jumped so far [17.68], you'd have to say that Phillips is the future of the triple jump in Britain."

With Idowu away on a training trip to South Africa, though, it is Akinsanya who has been given the first opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Edwards, Britain's No 1 triple jumper for 13 successive years, a record run in any event. It will not be the first daunting challenge he has faced.

Last September he was invited to the Slottsskogs-vallen meeting in Gothenburg - a competitive home- coming party for Olsson, a native Gothenburger, after his World Championship victory in Paris. The little-known Briton rose impressively to the occasion, too. He took third place in a competition that featured four World Championship finalists.

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