Charles van Commenee once branded him the invisible man, but at nearly 6ft 6in and clad in a bright red tracksuit and red baseball cap branded with a large “P”, Phillips Idowu cuts a very visible presence on the shaded veranda of a hotel tucked into the lee of one of Rome’s seven hills.
For more than a decade Idowu’s career has scaled peaks and then tumbled down the other side; a world champion and the great home hope who failed to even qualify for the triple jump final at the London Olympics, a numbing experience in a stadium a figurative hop, skip and jump from where he was born and raised and where he still feels most at ease.
Since that low in London, the culmination of a troubled year, Idowu has rarely been spotted, content to become invisible – although he would not want to lend any substance to Van Commenee’s description as there is no common ground between these two – while he patched himself back together. Now begins the rest of his sporting life.
At 34 and surrounded by younger rivals, Idowu’s career is entering its final course. There are not too many runways left to step on to but he retains a healthy sense of his worth, quoting his strong record of success, one decorated with world, Olympic, European and Commonwealth medals. He dismisses suggestions that time is running out, and does so without pointing to the achievements of the man he shared the early part of his own career with.
Jonathan Edwards arrived on BBC duty at the same Roman hotel not long after Idowu had departed the veranda and hurried to phone home before his children went to bed. Edwards won Olympic gold aged 34 and matched that achievement at the World Championships a year later, a full six years after his world record leap in Gothenburg.
“I’m jumping,” says Idowu of his return to action. “I enjoy what I’m doing. After last year I was able to just enjoy things I like doing, away from the track, and I’m back in the sport now. I don’t think I’m too old to be out there competing. I still feel I can mix it up well.”
Idowu’s career-defining jump came four years ago, when he won world gold in Berlin. The aim is to repeat it in Moscow later this summer, or at least match his silver of two years ago in Daegu. His return to action in Rome on Thursday was low key, a good opening jump had him in third place, two fouls followed and he called it a night. Step one.
It is about each step towards Moscow, and each one away from London. It was last June that Idowu landed awkwardly in a meeting in Eugene. He was in form, having beaten Christian Taylor, the Olympic champion-in-waiting in Shanghai, but from that moment in Oregon nothing went right. Idowu pulled out of meeting after meeting as London drew nearer and was then accused of disappearing by Van Commenee (left), Britain’s then head coach.
The pair already had a fractious relationship, Idowu having accused the Dutchman of being a “liar” during a dispute over his withdrawal from a British team in 2011.
In the build-up to the Games, Van Commenee claimed Idowu had “turned his back” on his coach Aston Moore amid an escalating row over Idowu’s whereabouts and fitness. When he stepped down last year, Van Commenee said “as a leader you cannot help people who are self-destructive”. There was no doubt who he meant.
“All of that has nothing to do with me,” says Idowu of Van Commenee’s past criticisms. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with the calibre of athlete I am or what I’ve achieved in my career. What is written by you guys doesn’t change what I do.”
There are four of us from the British media sitting around the table with him. “You kind of need to check your facts because the messages were coming out, you know the source has been proven to lie... when talking about me in the past. To be honest the people who know me know different, know better, so that’s what matters.”
A game of “find Phillips” was played out in the media in the countdown to London. “We don’t know where he is,” said Van Commenee.
“I was like: ‘That’s bullshit,’” recalls Idowu animatedly, describing it in the present tense. “UK Anti-Doping know where I am, my coach knows where I am, so for all of that to be said, and to be whipped up into a media storm, is crap.”
Van Commenee, no doubt, would have his own, very different, story. In fact, he has denied lying about Idowu in the past. Idowu must, in any event, be happy to have seen the back of Van Commenee? “I wasn’t fussed either way. I wasn’t fussed. For the last four years I’ve been working with Aston and we’ve done the whole thing. I’ve funded my own warm-weather trips, I’ve paid my own way, not at all on lottery funding.
“I went to the competitions, I went to the major championships when selected after doing what I was supposed to do; qualifying, you get picked, you go and I came back with medals. That was it. Anything outside of that I had no involvement with UK Athletics. No medical, no nothing. I sort my own medical staff, my own masseuse.
“Off the back of that: Olympic silver, world gold, European gold, world silver – I think I’m working with a pretty decent team. I had a good coach, good nutritionist, physio and a good psychologist.”
Since the Games he and his family have returned to London, where he grew up in Hackney. After the 2008 Olympics he had moved to Birmingham to work with Moore. Now he is looked after by Femi Akinsanya, who was Moore’s No 2, at Lee Valley.
“I decided that it was best for my family to be back home so that cousins, aunties, uncles, grandma, grandad and so on and so forth could be around for the kids and my wife. I made that choice and everyone’s happy.
“I fund my whole career and have done for four years. [UK Athletics] have nothing I want. They can’t make me move. I have full control over my career and what meets I do when I want.”
He had an operation after the London Olympics and insists fitness is not a problem. Idowu is his own man, an individual in an individual sport. He is unpredictable.
“I hope Phillips turns up,” said Taylor, who won in Rome, on Thursday. “You never know with him, I think he plays a lot of mental games. For a while he had me fooled until the Games.”
The interview is drawing to a close. Now you are back home, he is asked, have you got your Hackney swagger back? He shrugs.
“I’m comfortable at home,” he says, handling his phone, decorated in Team GB colours. It is obvious he wants to get away and call home. He doesn’t like being away from his family. “I did not lose my enjoyment. I always enjoy winning medals. On the back of last year I have taken a step back from all the hype. It’s a lot easier now because I am back in London.
“I want the same as always. I want to enjoy what I’m doing now. I always put a lot of pressure on myself when I go and compete. I set myself extremely high standards. I have worked hard this winter. Everything between now and August is about being ready to compete for medals.”