Athletics: Last leap of faith for Edwards

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The Independent Online

It very nearly ended before it had really begun for Jonathan Edwards - right here in Paris, literally down the road from where the grand old man of British athletics on Friday finally announced his intention to hang up his triple-jumping spikes. That was back in 1994, the summer after the cherubic Gateshead Harrier had given up his job as a geneticist to become a full-time athlete.

Edwards had finished last in the IAAF Grand Prix final at the Stade Charlety. He had failed to venture beyond the 16m mark. He returned to Tyneside pondering whether to give up his new profession. "I felt like jumping off the Tyne Bridge," he later reflected. According to Peter Stanley, the coach who was to transform his career: "The way he was performing at the time he wouldn't have been able to jump off the Tyne Bridge".

Fortunately for Edwards, and for British athletics, the Parisian nightmare merely became a springboard. Nine years have passed since that nadir - nine years, three world records, two world titles, one Olympic gold, one European championship and a Commonwealth crown.

Edwards has not so much been a triple jumper as become the triple jump. No other athlete has hopped, stepped and jumped within 20cm of the world record he set in Gothenburg eight years ago, a mammoth 18.29m.

It might so easily never have happened. But there was the vicar's son yesterday morning: back in Paris, at the Stade de France, preparing for his final hops, steps and jumps on the opening day of the World Championships. The question was whether his fragile right ankle would get him through the qualifying round and into tomorrow's final. The answer came in round two. After a tentative opening jump measured at 16.30m, he ventured out to 16.94m, sufficient to secure his passage as the sixth-best qualifier.

"Warming up before the competition I didn't feel too good, but out there I was all right," Edwards said. "I live to fight another day." Just the one more day, though, in a career that has been in overtime for three years now.

Edwards has been jumping in bonus- land ever since he grasped his personal grail, an Olympic gold medal, in Sydney three years ago. There were no peaks left for him to scale. The only question was when he would choose to climb down. The moment might well have been chosen for him, at Crystal Palace two weeks ago, when he veered off the runway and twisted his ankle.

As it was, the 37-year-old made it to Paris, and on Friday morning, at the Cité Universitaire, in the very shadow of the Stade Charlety, he announced his swansong intentions - quoting Proverbs 16, Verse 9: "A man's heart deviseth his way, but the Lord directeth his steps". And his hops and jumps, it would seem.

"After Crystal Palace I felt God was directing my path, almost literally, off the runway," Edwards elaborated. "I think it was a sign that this was the time to stop." Whether he stops with a victory remains to be seen. Edwards has yet to record a victory in his farewell season. Given his devout convictions, it seems fitting that he should be passing on the baton of world leader in his event to a Christian.

Christian Olsson was a programme seller in Gothenburg's Ullevi Stadium when Edwards set his definitive world record in the 1995 World Championships. The 23-year-old Swede was the best qualifier yesterday, jumping 17.56m, and the world title seems his for the taking - unless Edwards can muster one final leap of faith, that is.