Edwards faces new challenge to his crown

Britain's Olympic triple jump gold medallist is relaxed about the threat posed by a young Swede inspired by his world record
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The Independent Online

The contrast could hardly have been more acute. As Denise Lewis lay on her sickbed in the British athletes' hotel, fretting over her stomach upset, her fallible form and fitness, and – who knows – the bullish statements being made by her big rival Eunice Barber, Britain's other Olympic champion at the World Championships here could hardly have looked more at ease.

Despite being his country's only clear favourite to win gold in the Commonwealth Stadium, something he will seek to do on Monday following today's qualifying, Jonathan Edwards was his genial and obliging self as he looked ahead to the latest challenge of a top-class career stretching back 13 years. Nor was he even faintly bothered by the presence alongside him of Christian Olsson, the 21-year-old Swede who has emerged this season as the latest challenger to the man 14 years his senior.

At 35, Edwards has gained all the experience he needs to deal with his occupational pressure as triple jump's outstanding talent. Having lived with the expectations raised during his annus mirabilis of 1995, when he took the event into new territory over 18 metres and won the world title he is seeking to regain here, Edwards has freed himself by winning the Olympic title four years after everyone thought he would. And, as has not been the case with Lewis, the experience has been almost wholly positive.

"I've had a new lease of life since the Olympics, to be honest," Edwards said. "Because it's taken away the pressure. I enjoy being an athlete. It's a tremendous lifestyle in terms of being able to spend a lot more time at home with the family, I train a couple of hours a day, get to travel the world to be in competitive situations. It's fabulous, and I enjoy that. And I'd lost some of that enjoyment in the years since winning the world title in Gothenburg.

"It was a case of living under constant pressure of 'You've done well, but not quite well enough.' Particularly with regard to the Olympics. It had an effect on my family. It's hard for athletics not to dominate – you do take it home with you. My wife, Alison, lives and breathes it in the way that I do, although in a way for her it's harder because she doesn't have that physical outlet of actually going out there and jumping. She has to sit and watch – or not watch, as the case may be."

As the case is this time around, his wife is at home in Newcastle, and expecting her husband back in time to celebrate their eldest son Samuel's eighth birthday. Daddy coming back with another gold medal would obviously help the party to go with a swing; and Daddy, for all his apparent ease, badly wants to do just that.

He acknowledges that his historic achievements – he has five of the six best legal marks of all time, including a world record 20 centimetres further than his nearest rival – have put him into a separate category within his event, to the point where his successes are almost taken for granted. "Sometimes I think that people don't look at me in quite the same way," he said with a grin. "They think, something like, 'Edwards will just win.' Even the athletes.

"But I've got used to it since 1995. It's never easy, but you learn to cope with it. I'm very happy with my form this year, it's been more solid than in the last three years. With people like Christian jumping very well this year I can't afford to relax in any way. But I am very, very motivated to do well here.

"I regard this as a great opportunity to jump very well. Whether I will get near the 18 metres mark we will have to wait and see, but I'm in great shape. At my age there's not many competitions left that will excite me and thrill me, and this is one of them." Although Edwards leads this year's world standings with 17.66m, the young Swede – who beat him in rainy conditions in Helsinki earlier this season – has recorded a national record of 17.49m and cleared 17 metres in eight of his competitions.

As a 15-year-old, Olsson watched Edwards set his world record in Gothenburg, and the experience inspired him to follow in the same path. "I was sitting in the stands level with the 18 metres mark," Olsson said. "It's been a really good thing for me to have that memory that someone like Jonathan can jump as good as that," he said. "I was doing the high jump and the triple jump at the time, and it brought me closer to what I wanted to do in the sport." Along with others such as the British pair of Larry Achike and Phillips Idowu, respectively fifth and sixth behind Edwards in Sydney, and Italy's Paolo Camossi, who beat Edwards to the world indoor title earlier this year, Olsson will be hoping that the world record holder has a bad day.

Achike summed up the prevailing attitude earlier in the week. "The thing Jonathan has over the rest of us is that he has jumped big distances so often," he said. "He can jump 17.50 without even getting it right. He always knows he's got that in his back pocket when he needs to pull it out."

Edwards, characteristically, offered sound and helpful advice when asked to comment on how his rivals might approach the task in hand.

"I think they have got to concentrate on what they've got to do themselves," he said. "If they go out there and try and jump 18 metres because they think that's what they've got to do to beat me, they might only ever jump a 16.50. That's not within their compass. So they have to do their own thing. In field events you stand on the run-up on your own, and you are very much on your own." Win or lose here, Edwards has already ensured that he is out on his own. But he wants to win again.