Countdown to the Olympics: Jump to attention

With Phillips Idowu as a bright-red figurehead, Britain's field athletes are confident of making a great leap forward at the Beijing Olympics next month. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online

It used to be simple. Britain was a nation of harriers, with runners such as the tenacious, bespectacled Sydney Wooderson epitomising the national character with world-class performances in the years before the Second World War.

The tradition flowed on through men such as Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway, Chris Brasher and Gordon Pirie, and further on through the likes of Dave Bedford, Brendan Foster and Ian Stewart. And then it went on again, through the wonder years of Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott.

But jumping? Well, the British have not always been the best when it comes to getting off the ground. One statistic tells the story as well as anything. In 1968 Lynn Davies, who was already the Olympic and European long jump champion, produced his best ever effort, of 8.23 metres. That stood as the British record for 34 years, until Chris Tomlinson bettered it in 2002.

Mary Rand won the women's Olympic long jump title in the same year that Davies won the men's event, making 1964 an annus mirabilis for the event in domestic terms. No British woman, however, has won a global long jump title since.

Such is the complexity and range of athletics, however, that there is inevitably a shift in the main areas of achievement. Now, with the Olympics less than a month away, there are signs that Britain is shaping up nicely as a nation of jumpers. This weekend's Olympic trials in Birmingham offer an ideal opportunity for that impression to be strengthened across the board.

With the distance runner Paula Radcliffe struggling to recover sufficiently from a stress fracture in order to perform at her own exalted level in the Beijing Games, the most obvious contender British athletics has for an Olympic gold this summer is a jumper. After the long years of domination by Jonathan Edwards, the Olympic triple jump champion in 2000 and still the holder of the world record, at 18.29m, Phillips Idowu, the man who was always shaping up as the next great contender, appears finally to be coming good.

The affable Londoner has always cut a dash, his hair dyed a variety of hues and silver studs set in his eyebrows and tongue. But Edwards, among others, has maintained sternly for years that with Idowu there has been too much show and not enough to show.

No longer. In 2006 Idowu won the Commonwealth title and a year later he picked up the European indoor title after an extended battle with his domestic rival, Nathan Douglas.

In March, at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia, he took an even bigger step forward as he defeated a world-class field to win gold with a jump of 17.75m, the fifth furthest of all time and, by the by, further than Edwards ever managed indoors.

"There is no reason why Phillips can't win the Olympics now," said Edwards. "When he won the European indoor title last year he effectively only had Nathan Douglas to beat, but this was a much stronger field and I think he will have been given a big mental lift by what he has done here."

Idowu, sensibly, is refusing to accept that he is now the favourite for Beijing, pointing out that there are several serious contenders for the gold medal. But an outdoor effort of 17.55m in Greece last month only underlined his potential.

Idowu's chances may be affected by how successful Sweden's Christian Olsson, Edwards' successor as Olympic champion, proves to be in overcoming a serious hamstring problem.

In the meantime, Douglas, who has a three-year-old personal best of 17.64m, is making his own recovery from injury in time to make an impact in Beijing and the 1998 Commonwealth champion, Larry Achike, has also come back into the reckoning this season, with an effort of 17.20m. He is reported to be in shape to go even further this weekend.

Expectations of Britain's long jumpers are not at the same level but the competitive pressure appears to have increased at the right time for Tomlinson with the re-emergence of Greg Rutherford who, with the 2002 Commonwealth champion, Nathan Morgan, forms the record holder's main domestic opposition.

Rutherford announced his talents three years ago when, at 18, he became the youngest winner of the senior AAA long jump title and went on to win the European junior title with a British junior record of 8.14m. The following year he was one of few truly promising British performers at the European Championships in Gothenburg, leaping to a silver medal. He finished the year with a personal best of 8.26m.

That was just a centimetre shy of the British record Tomlinson had set in 2002, and although the latter athlete has since improved his mark to 8.29m it is a distance clearly within the reach of the younger man – injury permitting.

Since that flourish in Sweden, Rutherford's talent has been undermined by a cruel sequence of ankle problems which effectively wiped out 2007 in competitive terms. His recovery from an operation in February last year took longer than expected and left him with an ankle that still needs careful management.

There has been good and bad news for Rutherford in the run-up to these Olympic trials. The bad news, as he explained haltingly yesterday, is that his dearly loved grandfather has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"I have hardly slept since hearing the news a week and a half ago," he said. "But it has given me a different motivation. When you find out someone who has been a part of your life for so many years is not going to be around for a lot longer it makes you look at things in a different way. As far as this weekend is concerned, it makes me want to do something I can dedicate to him. I'm confident I can win, and I believe I can get the Olympic qualifying mark of 8.20m."

The good news for Rutherford is that he is in the right shape to do justice to his talents, and a jump of 8.04m in Zaragoza, when he was jumping in heavy rain and into a headwind of nearly a metre per second, has bolstered his self-belief.

Tomlinson, who picked up a world indoor silver in Valencia, has been progressing satisfactorily while Morgan and Jonathan Moore, who has recovered from a horrendous knee injury, have what it takes to make Olympic selection a challenge.

While British men's high jumping has not reached the levels it enjoyed when Dalton Grant, a European indoor champion, and the 1996 Olympic bronze medallist, Steve Smith, regularly challenged the best the world had to offer, it has shown encouraging signs this year in the form of Samson Oni and Martyn Bernard, both of whom have reached 2.30m.

Since Dorothy Tyler won Olympic silver medals for Britain at the 1936 and 1948 Games, British women's high jumpers have struggled at the most exalted level of competition. Some of the best exponents have been those who do not even specialise in the event, such as the 1972 Olympic pentathlon champion, Mary Peters, and more recently the 2006 Commonwealth heptathlon bronze medallist, Jessica Ennis, who was shaping up as a genuine Beijing medal contender, along with Kelly Sotherton, until she broke her ankle at the beginning of last month.

Despite standing just 5ft 4in, Ennis, now 22, has achieved astonishing results in the high jump. At the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games her effort in the heptathlon would have won her the individual high jump title had she entered. Her effort of 1.95m last year equalled the British record.

This week's announcement of the retirement of Ashia Hansen – the former world indoor triple jump record holder and the Commonwealth and European champion of 2002 – leaves that women's discipline looking relatively low-key. But in the women's long jump, where for many years Sotherton was one of the strongest contenders, there has been hugely encouraging news in Jade Johnson's return to form.

When she won European silver in 2002, famously pointing out that she was allergic to sand and offering numerous media outlets the opportunity to picture the substance in question clinging to her bottom, it seemed Johnson was on a roll. Such was her disappointing form since, however, that she lost her Lottery funding last year.

Last month she announced her return by setting a personal best of 6.81m at the European Cup in Annecy. Perhaps she, along with her fellow British jumpers, is timing to perfection her run to the Olympic board.

Ready for lift-off Britain's best jumpers

One step up from glory: Chris Tomlinson, 26

This indefatigable 6ft 6in Middlesbrough fan, who recently married the West End actress Lucia Rovardi, was the man who bettered Lynn Davies' British long jump record of 8.23m after it had stood for 34 years. Took silver at this year's World Indoors. Needs to step up one more level to be sure of a place on the Olympic podium.

Bright-eyed and hard as nails: Greg Rutherford, 21

Made a major splash two years ago, taking European long jump silver aged 19 and recording an effort of 8.26m, just 1cm off Tomlinson's then British record. Serious ankle problems have hindered his progress since, but he is back to fitness now and raring to go.

Get me – I'm talented as well as beautiful: Jade Johnson, 28

Made a big impact in 2002 when she won long jump silvers in the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, despite making it clear she was allergic to sand – it made her come out in a rash. Seventh in the 2004 Olympics but has struggled since. Achieved a personal best of 6.81m last month.

Behold the miraculous jumping bean: Jessica Ennis, 22

Psychology graduate from Sheffield University who was coming on in leaps and bounds in the heptathlon before she broke her ankle last month. Still a huge prospect; despite being only 5ft 4in, she equalled the British high jump record last year.

Ready to dye for the cause: Phillips Idowu, 29

Hair currently dyed "fire red" – he hasn't lost yet when it has been that colour – and has a tongue stud regularly on show. Affable and powerful Londoner has emerged, albeit unwillingly, as Britain's most likely Olympic gold medallist after his world indoor triple jump win in March.

Smoothly does it: Nathan Douglas, 25

The 2006 European triple jump silver medallist has been overtaken by Phillips Idowu, who beat him at last year's European Indoors. Has been struggling with injury, but is a peerless technician and still has big potential.