Phillips Idowu is sitting deep in thought in a Birmingham city-centre hotel. "Which would I ask her to give me?" he enquires after a few moments. The scenario which has just been suggested to the world champion triple jumper is that of a fairy godmother coming down to earth and offering him either the world record Jonathan Edwards has held for 14 years or the Olympic gold medal that will be on the line just down the road from his family home in Hackney in the summer of 2012.
"I'd say she could give me the Olympic gold," Idowu says, after a pause for further thought, "and I'll get the world record myself. When it comes down to competing at major championships it's pretty much pot luck. You can be in the best shape of your life and something goes wrong.
"If I had a guarantee of that gold medal I'd take it, because I know at some point of my career I'm going to be in great shape, jumping big distances. But on the particular day of a major championship final you never know what's going to happen. So I'll take the guarantee of the gold, and just work on the world record."
It is a work that has been in progress for Idowu since he travelled down to Mile End Stadium in the east end of London in the summer of 1995, measured out the world record 18.29m that Edwards had just jumped at the World Championships in Gothenburg, and told himself: "All you've got to do is hop six metres, step six metres and jump six metres. I could do that. It doesn't look too difficult."
Fourteen years on, Idowu is still a quarter of a metre short of the 18m mark. A month short of his 31st birthday, though, the 6ft 4in former basketball player is continuing to make progress in the shadow of the fellow Briton who took the hop, step and jump to a whole new dimension.
In Sydney in 2000, when Edwards struck Olympic gold aged 34, Idowu finished sixth in the final as a raw 21-year-old Great Britain team-mate. In 2002 he came within a whisker of beating the master at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, but then, after Edwards hung up his spikes a year later, spent several years struggling to grasp the mantle of the retired Gateshead Harrier. Injury had much to do with his maddening run of inconsistency, but there were signs of world-beating pot-ential when Idowu succeeded Edwards as Commonwealth champion in Melbourne in 2006 and when he won the European indoor title in Birmingham in 2007, breaking the championship record held by Christian Olsson, Sweden's 2004 Olympic champion.
In March last year, Idowu finally became a world-beater. He won the World Indoor Championship title in Valencia, jumping 17.75m, a lifetime best indoors or out and an 11cm improvement on Edwards' 10-year-old British indoor record. Olympic silver behind Nelson Evora of Portugal in Beijing last year, missing gold by just 5cm, was a big disappointment for the big British favourite, but at the World Championships in Berlin in August this year Idowu finished on top of the global pile again.
His winning jump, 17.73m, was his best in outdoor competition. Having taken off 20cm from the limit of the take-off board, he knows he is knocking on the door of the 18m barrier. "That was as close as you can get without actually seeing the numbers come up on the scoreboard," he says of his second-round effort. "I know it's there. If I don't do anything other than just make sure that my accuracy on the board improves, that will take me to 18m. And then, with another year of training, another year of improvement, I don't see why I can't find that extra 30cm."
As he talks, Idowu fiddles with the brim of his pink NY baseball cap. The Belgrave Harrier is known as a man of many hair colours and metal facial adornments but he is a man of infinite hats, an Imelda Marcos of the millinery world. Last year at the European Cup he sported a Duff Beer cap. At the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace he wore a natty trilby. But it is the crown of all-time triple jump king that he craves most.
For all the strides he has taken in the past two years, since linking up with Aston Moore, the coach who guided Ashia Hansen to the women's world indoor record, and then moving his training base to Birmingham, the reigning world outdoor and indoor champion still considers himself to be the "number two" in his chosen event. "Just purely because of the achievements of Jonathan Edwards," Idowu explains. "I don't think I've got anywhere near to emulating him but I am working towards being the best triple jumper ever, and in my mind I will be before I retire. I don't have any doubts about that."
For the time being, Idowu is still trying to measure up to the man who presented him with his World Champ-ionship gold in Berlin, and who will doubtless be doing the honours in London in 2012. Whatever the Hackney boy achieved in the hop, step and jump game, his deeds were always going to be compared with those of Edwards, whose critical comments from the BBC television commentary box have, he confesses, quite often struck a raw nerve.
"Some of the comments can be harsh," Idowu says, "but that's his opinion and he's entitled to it. There are so many more people who watch me compete and they think I'm amazing. I just ride on a wave of positivity and let the negatives slide by."
So what did Edwards say to him when he presented the gold medal in Berlin? "He said to me, 'Who would have thought that I would be here giving you a World Champ-ionship gold medal?' " recounts Idowu. Who would have thought the pair would become so inextricably linked: Edwards, the vicar's son educated at a Devon boarding school, West Buckland; and Idowu, raised in the school-of-hard-knocks territory of Hackney? "We're two different people," Idowu says. "We both happen to be triple jumpers from the UK but I'm a different animal to Jonathan. We're built differently. We don't have the same strengths in the event. He was a lot more successful by the age I am now. I'm just taking a different path."
The next step on the road to 2012 will be an indoor season in which Idowu intends to defend his World Indoor Championship crown in Doha in March. His rivals there, and at the European Championships in Barcelona in July, will probably include Evora, the man who denied him gold in Beijing, and also Olsson, the 2004 Olympic champion, who is on the comeback trail after three years hamstrung by injury.
Having spent the first four years of his international career competing against the greatest triple jumper of all time, Hackney's finest is not exactly daunted by the prospect of squaring up to a couple of mere Olympic champions.
"Yeah, I competed against Jonathan right from my first international," Idowu says. "There's no one I'm competing against now that I can have any kind of fear about. I've just got to go and make sure I do my best, and if my best is good enough then I'll win. If it's not, then I'll take my hat off to whoever takes the victory." One of his many hats, that is.
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