At times of late, it has seemed like Phillips Idowu has been following Mr Benn into the fitting room of the Fancy Dress Shop, via the millinery section. At the European Cup in Annecy, the Commonwealth triple jump champion appeared sporting a Duff Beer cap. At a press conference in London's West End to discuss his Olympic chances, he rolled up with a beanie hat pulled down over his dyed red hair. Then, at the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace last weekend, he could be seen wearing a natty green trilby.
The question now is whether the crown of Olympic champ-ion will come to rest on the Londoner's head in Beijing on 21 August. The would-be king of the men's triple jump has little doubt that it will. After emerging victorious from his event at the British trials in Birmingham three weeks ago, he said: "I feel like Superman right now. I'm bullet-proof." With two-and-a-half weeks to go before his date with destiny in the Bird's Nest Stadium, Idowu still fancies his chances of dodging any kryptonite-coated shells.
Asked if he happened to be a betting man, he informed The Independent on Sunday: "No, I'm not, as it goes." But would he invest a little hard currency in himself? "I'd put money on myself," he replied without hesitation, before lapsing into his gently Bruno-esque belly laugh. "You should too," he added. "I think you should."
There was a time when you would not put your house on the maddeningly inconsistent Idowu – your daughter's wendy house, that is. He was, after all, an athlete who went to the Athens Olympics as a serious medal contender four years ago, who qualified for the final, and who then failed to register a valid jump. He was also the man who went to the European Champion- ships in Gothenburg in 2006 as a major threat to the hometown hero, Christian Olsson, only to finish down in fifth place. Now he is a different proposition – or so it would seem.
At the age of 29, the 6ft 4in Hackney native has finally found a level of consistency. At the World Indoor Championships in Valencia in March, Idowu claimed his first global title, jumping 17.75m – an 11cm improvement on the British indoor record held by Jonathan Edwards, the Gateshead Harrier whose outdoor world record stands unchallenged at 18.29m. Indoors and outdoors this year, Idowu has won nine out of nine competitions. He stands top of the outdoor world rankings with 17.58m, his winning distance at the trials in Birmingham.
"I'm still undefeated in 2008, which is where I want to be," he said, looking ahead to Beijing. "I'm as confident as I've been all year. I feel I'm in great shape and that's all that I need to be concerned about. I'm not thinking about what the other guys are doing, or who's going to be in the competition with me. It's really all about where I am. If you look at the rankings, I'm No 1, so I shouldn't be worrying. I'm mentally stronger this year. I have the belief that whatever anyone else might do I've got enough ammunition to retaliate."
That was the case at Crystal Palace eight days ago. In his final competitive test before departing for the Team GB training camp in Macau, Idowu trailed behind his injury-plagued British team-mate Nathan Douglas before securing victory, ultimately jumping 17.42m. By his own recent standards he was somewhat below par, yet he still emerged a clear winner. At the Grand Prix meeting in Monaco last Tuesday night, the men who finished first and second at the World Champion-ships in Osaka last summer – Portugal's Nelson Evora and the Tyneside-based Brazilian Jadel Gregorio – were even more out of sorts, jumping 17.24m and 16.84m respectively. The competition was won with 17.42m by Randy Lewis of Grenada.
Lewis has jumped 17.49m this summer and stands fourth in the world rankings. The Cubans Arnie David Girat and Alexis Copello have got closest to Idowu, both registering marks of 17.50m. "There are a lot of guys capable of jumping what I've jumped this year," Idowu said, "so I'm not sure I'm putting the fear of God into them right now. For me, it's nice to know I'm in good shape, that I'm putting out world-class distances, knowing I've still got 20cm, 30cm to go."
Back in 2000, when Edwards struck Olympic gold in Sydney at the age of 34, Idowu finished sixth in the final as a raw 21-year-old. Two years later he jumped 17.68m at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester (still his best outdoors) and had the gold in his grasp until Edwards snatched it in the final round.
The one-time basketball wannabe succeeded the retired Edwards as Commonwealth champion in Melbourne in 2006, but it was last year that he startedtruly realising his potential, eradicating the erratic from his form. He broke Olsson's championship record at the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham, and while sixth place at the World Championships in Osaka might have appeared to be a backward step it came after Idowu had injured his back at the British trials. It remains his last defeat.
Edwards is convinced that his old rival has taken a significant hop, step and jump in the right direction. "If you think back over the last few years," he said, "even to the World Indoor Champion-ships in Valencia, you were not sure which Phillips would turn up. Now there is no doubt.
"He looks in fantastic shape. He's a lot more athletic and agile, and as a result he's a lot more in control of his technique. And this is a man who is favourite for a gold medal in Beijing. That's a huge pressure on his shoulders. I know all about that; it does weigh heavy on you. And he has been lapping it up."
All the way to a victory lap in Beijing? We shall see.