Idowu takes it as red that Beijing should be a hair-raising occasion

The extrovert British triple jumper is rated the favourite for a gold medal next month and, having finally shaken off the inconsistency that had stopped him realising his exceptional talent, tells Simon Turnbull he is ready for anything
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The Independent Online

Phillips Idowu was last seen in public beaming at a trackside television camera, telling the world: "I feel like Superman right now. I'm bulletproof." That was at the trials for the British Olympic track and field team in Birmingham 11 days ago. Yesterday the flying triple jumper was facing the cameras and the microphones at a Park Lane hotel ahead of the London Grand Prix, the pre-Olympic showpiece staged at Crystal Palace tomorrow night and on Saturday afternoon. He was sporting his usual array of facial adornments – tongue, lip, nose and eyebrow piercings – but wrapped in a polo shirt rather than a Superman cape. For that matter, Britain's leading hope for athletics gold in Beijing was not wearing regulation superhero knickers over tights, either. Not that he would have got them in any kind of a twist about his prospects of hopping, stepping and jumping to the top of the medal podium in China.

On Tuesday night in Stockholm, Sweden's Christian Olsson, winner of the triple jump in Athens four years ago, belatedly opened and abruptly concluded his Olympic-season campaign, beaten by a lingering hamstring injury. Four weeks away from the triple jump final in the Bird's Nest Stadium, Idowu remains the clear favourite – "the biggest favourite in Beijing," according to Olsson yesterday. The north Londoner stands unchallenged at the top of the world rankings this year, with a distance of 17.58 metres, and has yet to be beaten in 2008. If any of his rivals have some kryptonite in store for him, they are keeping the stuff under careful wraps.

Still, for the first time this summer, there was a cautious tone in Idowu's words yesterday. "Just because Christian's out doesn't mean someone else won't step into his place – that there's not going to be another athlete come out of somewhere and put in a really big performance," he said. "I've just got to concentrate on what my goals are for the year and prepare for the Olympics.

"If I prepare well enough, then I'm ready for someone coming out and jumping a ridiculously far distance," he added. "I know I'm not going to have it my own way at the Olympic Games. It's not easy – otherwise I would have had two Olympic medals already. I'm experienced enough to know that I can't make any mistakes."

The pressure of being a favourite – the one big British favourite in the showcase Olympic sport of track and field – is starting to pierce that Idowu armour, it would seem. The maverick who sported a Duff Beer cap at the European Cup in Annecy last month was keeping his dyed red hair under a fawn beanie hat yesterday – an attempt to salvage some anonymity as Olympic fever starts to spread, perhaps.

"Yeah, you guys keep writing about me, man," he said, his Brunoesque belly laugh accompanying his gentle chastisement of Her Majesty's Press. "I can't walk out of my house without people saying, 'Oh, good luck at the Olympics'. I do appreciate it. The public have been really appreciative and I love the fact that they have faith in me. But sometimes when I just want to walk down the aisle at Tesco and pick up some fruit... Yeah, thanks guys."

Not that it is beyond the bounds of possibility that we will all be writing about the triple-jumping Superman crashing to earth in Beijing. After all, he does only lead the world rankings by eight centimetres, from David Giralt of Cuba, and some of his rivals are capable of jumping big distances - notably Jadel Gregorio, the 6ft 10in Brazilian who trains on Tyneside with Peter Stanley, the coach who turned Jonathan Edwards into the world record holder and an Olympic champion in the event. Still, Idowu himself admits that he has been performing with restraint thus far this summer, putting the emphasis on control, consistency and the eradication of his erratic form of old.

After jumping 17.58m at the trials in Birmingham, he spoke of producing "something special" when he competes at the Palace tomorrow night. The possibility of an 18.40m jump was mentioned in printed dispatches. The world record set by Edwards, Idowu's long-retired old British team-mate and rival, at the World Championships in Gothenburg in 1995 stands at 18.29m. Idowu's best outdoor jump is 17.68m, which he achieved at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 – when Edwards snatched the gold medal from him with his final jump. He has, though, gone farther indoors. In winning the world indoor title in Valencia in March he jumped 17.75m.

"It's been written that I said I was aiming to break the world record at Crystal Palace," Idowu said yesterday. "I did not say that. I said I was hoping for something special and if that was a personal best I'd be happy with that. The world record is something that I do want to achieve in my career, and I do believe I have the ability to do it. But I didn't say that I would break it at Crystal Palace.

"I am in very good shape. At the trials I jumped 17.58m and I was 20 centimetres behind the board, so even if I just replicate what I did there that will get me a little bit closer to 18 metres. There are a lot of guys capable of jumping what I've jumped this year, so I'm not sure I'm putting the fear of God into them right now. For me, it's nice to know that I'm in good shape, that I'm putting out world-class distances, knowing that I've still got 20cm, 30cm left to go."

He might not quite be talking the talk, then, but if he hops the hop, steps the step and jumps the jump in south London tomorrow night Idowu could propel himself to the brink of the 18-metres mark, or even beyond. And that would certainly strike trepidation into the heart of his rivals. Only two triple jumpers have ever ventured over 18m: Edwards and Kenny Harrison, the American who beat the British favourite with 18.08m at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. If Idowu managed to achieve the landmark feat tomorrow night it would be a giant leap for someone who grew up on a tough council estate in Hackney, not one of springing from building to building in the style of Superman but of emulating the Clark Kentish Edwards, the vicar's son from Devon who took the art of the triple jumping into a new dimension.

When Edwards jumped his 18.29m in Gothenburg in 1995, the 16-year-old Idowu travelled to the Mile End Stadium in the East End of London and measured out the distance from the triple jump take-off board. "I just wanted to see what it looked like," he recalled. "I measured it out and I was thinking, 'Yeah, all you've got to do is hop six metres, step six metres and jump six metres'. I was thinking, 'I could do that. It doesn't look too difficult'. Obviously it's a target. It's an aim."

They might have approached the triple jump from different angles – Edwards from his youth as a boarder at West Buckland School in Devon; Idowu from a school of hard knocks in Bethnal Green – but there is a symmetry in their development. Edwards was on the international scene a long time before he exploded into a world record breaker. He was an Olympian in Seoul back in 1988 and had a modest personal best of 17.44m before his annus mirabilis of 1995, when he jumped a wind assisted 18.43m at the European Cup in Lille, then a legal 18.29m at the World Championships. He was 29 at the time.

Idowu happens to be 29 now, as he approaches his third Games. He was an Olympian in Sydney in 2000, a raw 21-year-old finishing sixth behind the victorious 34-year-old Edwards. He went to Athens as a serious medal contender four years ago but failed to register a valid mark in the final. Edwards sank to a similar nadir in Barcelona in 1992, travelling with hopes of a place on the podium but crashing out in the qualifying round with a paltry 15.76m. He left the Montjuic Stadium questioning whether it was worth continuing as a full-time athlete.

Idowu was haunted by his own Olympic nightmare. "I felt like a loser," he said, reflecting on his state of mind as he trudged out of the Olympic Stadium in Athens. "I just wanted to get out of there, get back home and disappear. I went out drinking and partying for weeks afterwards, travelling up and down the UK trying to go places where I wouldn't be recognised."

With his 6ft 4in frame, his facial decorations and his brightly dyed hair, melting into the crowd would not have been easy for Idowu. The same could be said of transforming himself from being a model of inconsistency into a world No 1. It is only in the past two years that Idowu has eradicated the erratic tendencies from his form. At the European indoor championships in Birmingham in March last year he broke Olsson's continental indoor record. At surface value, sixth place at the World Championships in Osaka last August might have seemed a typical backward step, but it came after he had badly injured his back at the trials and subsequently discovered that five of his lower six vertebrae were riddled with stress fractures. It remains the last defeat on his competitive card.

Since Idowu's world indoor success in Valencia he has switched from his long-term coach, John Herbert, and now spends two days a week in Birmingham working with Aston Moore, the former triple jumper who turned Ashia Hansen into a world indoor champion and world indoor record holder in the event. "It's working out well," Idowu said. "Aston has great faith in me. He believes that 18.80m is not out of my reach."

It probably means as much to Idowu that Edwards has come to have great faith in him, too. At the start of last season Idowu confessed that his old rival's criticism in his television commentaries had needled him. In fairness, though, the world record holder always believed that Idowu possessed the ability to assume his former mantle as the world leader in the hop, step and jump. Now Edwards is convinced that the effusive Londoner has found the level of consistency he needs to stay at the top of the global pile.

"If you think back two years, even to the World Indoor Championships in March, you were not sure which Phillips Idowu would turn up," Edwards said. "Now there is no doubt. He looks in fantastic shape and he's more in control of his technique."

The question now is whether the Hackney Superman can ride the rising tide of expectation and soar to golden heights in Beijing.

Triple threat: Briton's rivals for the Olympic crown

JADEL GREGORIO (Brazil), Age 29

Moved from Sao Paulo to Gateshead two years ago to train under Peter Stanley, the coach who guided Jonathan Edwards to his triple jump world record distance, 18.29m. The 6ft 10in Gregorio jumped a whopping 17.90m back on home ground at Belem at the start of last season and took the World Championships silver medal in Osaka in August. His best jump this summer is only 17.28m but he could emerge as the big threat to Idowu in Beijing.

NELSON EVORA (Portugal), Age 24

Born in Ivory Coast, Evora competed for the Cape Verde Islands before relocating to Portugal in 2002. At the World Championships last summer he took the triple jump gold medal ahead of Gregorio, jumping 17.74m. It was Portugal's first success in the 24-year history of the event. A member of the Benfica sporting club that produced Eusebio, the celebrated footballer whose efforts to stop England in the 1966 World Cup ended in tears.

AARIK WILSON (United States), Age 25

The first Olympic triple jump champion was an American (James Connolly, in Athens in 1896) and three of the last six have been Americans (Al Joyner in 1984, Mike Conley in 1992 and Kenny Harrison in 1996). Wilson was a clear winner of the US trials with 17.43m. An Indiana University graduate in education, he finished fifth in Osaka last summer and seventh in the World Indoor Championships in Valencia in March this year.