Edwards' final leap rescues gold medal hopes

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The Independent Online

For Britain to lose one Olympic champion here was unfortunate; to have lost two would have been careless. Thankfully, Jonathan Edwards avoided following Denise Lewis out of the World Championships with a final qualifying leap which rescued him from the prospect of failing to reach today's triple jump final.

As he set off down the runway he was an athlete in sixteenth place overall, four places outside the final selection, with a best effort of just 16.51 metres; as he landed he was a champion who had concentrated his mind once again under duress and possessor of the leading qualifying mark of 17.46 metres. No wonder he swept both hands down over his face in relief.

From the overall British perspective, to have seen their second Olympic gold medallist depart the scene just 24 hours after Lewis's withdrawal from the heptathlon would have been a demoralising blow. Especially as it was Edwards who had delivered a reportedly inspiring keynote speech to the assembled team on the eve of these Championships.

Had he not managed to rise to the occasion it would have been the third time he had failed to qualify for the final at a major championships ­ but the first two occasions, at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, took place before his transformation into the greatest triple jumper the world has ever seen.

Since his Olympic victory last year, much of the huge pressure of expectation in which he has operated since winning the world title in a world record of 18.29m in 1995 has diminished. All that remains now is the assumption, in his own words, that "Edwards will just win". His chances of doing that again here today look outstandingly good, although he remains alert to the challenge of Sweden's 21-year-old former high jumper Christian Olsson, who has jumped 17.49m this year and who qualified with 17.11.

Other contenders lurk in the background, including America's Walter Davis, who produced the second best jump of the day with 17.22, and Paolo Camossi, the Italian who beat Edwards to the gold medal at this year's World Indoor Championships in Lisbon and who, like the Olympic champion, rescued himself on his third and final jump.

Domestic competitors will also test Edwards's competitive powers to the full. For the second time in the space of a year, three Britons have reached the final of a global triple jump competition, a fact which simply underlines the depth of talent there now is in this event.

When Larry Achike and Phillips Idowu joined Edwards in last year's final in Sydney, finishing fifth and sixth respectively, it was Britain's best ever performance in an Olympic field event. Today's final could see the British contingent improving upon that showing, with either, or perhaps even both of Edwards's compatriots looking capable of joining him on the podium.

Achike, the Commonwealth champion, looked particularly impressive as he qualified with a first effort of 17.15, a performance which indicated that the hamstring injury which has bothered him since jumping a season's best of 17.21 at last month's Crystal Palace grand prix has mended satisfactorily.

A pleasant and personable 26-year-old with a degree in Bio-Medical Sciences, Achike is currently working hard at the mind games required to maintain a challenge to a man whom he describes as the greatest jumper in the history of the event. "It's hard," he says with a chuckle. "But Jonathan does have weaknesses. He has the power of killing off a competition if he gets it right. But if he doesn't I think he'll put pressure on himself and perhaps open the door for one of us to nick the gold medal off him.

"I feel I'm at the level where I can actually throw the gauntlet down and if it's my day I will beat Jonathan," Achike said. "I can't speak for Phillips, but I'm sure he thinks the same."

Achike's motivation to do well here could hardly be more acute given his experience in Sydney, where he took the lead with an opening jump of 17.29 metres, just a centimetre below his legal personal best, and was still in bronze medal position until the final two jumps of the competition pushed him down.

"I was totally gutted," he said. "Not just for days, but weeks. It took me a long time to get over the fact that I had come so close to getting an Olympic medal. Jonathan is the favourite here. But I think there could be a few surprises."

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