Belfast Telegraph

Olympic hero Edwards on new mission

By David Kelly

Jonathan Edwards used to come to Northern Ireland preaching redemption but now it is his faith in the Olympic ideals.

The 2000 Olympic triple jump champion was as much noted for his Christian faith as he was for breaking World records and claiming major championships medals, so it came as quite a shock when, two years ago, the son of a Baptist pastor declared that God was no longer part of his life.

Now he is part of the London 2012 team selling the belief in the legacy offered by the Greatest Show on Earth.

Posing for photographs at Cregagh Community Centre in east Belfast for a period of time that would have many sports stars feeling more than a little irritated, the smile couldn't be taken off Edwards' face as he promoted the bigger picture of inspiration, imbued by the power of sport.

Sport NI were launching their Activ8 campaign — backed by the London 2012 Inspire Mark — to get kids off their backsides and into sport, with Edwards banging the drum.

The 43-year-old can point to personal experience when he was caught by the Olympic flame in 1980 and then 20 years later burned his own mark into the annals of the event's great history.

“I was inspired by the 1980 Olympics and to a lesser extent the 1984 Olympic Games. Moscow 1980 was the one for me, I got caught up with the whole Coe-Ovett rivalry,” said Edwards.

“I loved all sports but I liked the individual nature of sport where you placed yourself out there and just see how far you could go, what you could achieve . . . I liked to make the decisions, so it was all on me and I wasn't going to blame somebody else for messing up!”

But it wasn't until well into his 20s that Edwards found the belief that he could he could stride the Olympic stage and emulate such heroes as Coe and multiple gold medal winner Carl Lewis.

He added: “I was coming home, on a train from Crystal Palace to Newcastle, and my coach Carl Johnson told me I was as talented as Colin Jackson and at that stage Jackson was Olympic silver medallist. I never thought about that before and this was when I was in my mid 20s.

“Athletics was very different then, it was still amateur . . . now I don't know if I would have made it to Olympic gold medallist because I was a late developer. Now you have to be good enough at 18-21 to get lottery funding.

“But there are a lot of pathways for sportsmen. Some start at 12 or 13 and go right through but for others they are late developers and they need schools and universities. It's good now that more athletes than ever are getting lottery funding. It's now £550m over a four-year cycle.”

Edwards' path to success coincided with his belief in eternal glory but no longer and you sense that assurance has been replaced by a grey confusion.

“I was brought up in a tight Christian home, my athletics and faith were entwined and I didn't question my faith. It was only when I retired from athletics that I started to question and I thought it didn't make sense.

“My horizons broadened, up to then it was church, the stadium and I kept my self to my self and it was all about being the best athlete I could be. I would have called myself born again and I would have made commitments and re-commitments.

“But then I experienced different views, saw how people lived their lives in different ways . . . but I couldn't understand in my head that there's a God; up to then I had just assumed it. It wasn't about whether or not Jesus Christ rose from the dead, it was just a primary school question if God existed and to me it just didn't make sense.”

His belief in the long-term benefits of the Olympic ideals has never wavered and he expects London 2012 to impact on Northern Ireland as much as anywhere else.

“The Olympics is a celebration of humanity. It's important because it impacts on culture, the performing arts and it's about humanity at its best.

“I think it also reflects the story of life . . . it's for the primary school kids as much as it is for Usain Bolt who will hopefully compete and break a world record. It's about the journey too — you start off and you end there with the success and it's the values you learn along the way.”

But for all the good, there is the bad in the shape of the dreaded drugs scandals which are now, sadly, part of every Games.

“Any positive drugs test is a horrible thing and on the Olympic stage it seems worse because it's the ultimate.

“It’s meant to be the best of sport and then it's tainted. It's almost like tainting something that is sacred.

“In the ancient days they used to make the cheats walk into the arena past pillars paid for by the fines of those who had cheated. It was a walk of shame — maybe we should bring that back!”

While Gothenburg 1995 will always be a glowing highlight, when he jumped into history with a new world record, it was the drama of his last Olympic gold which captured the nation five years later.

He recalled: “I didn't have a particularly good year, I wasn't at the top of my powers. It had also been a difficult two weeks away from family because my mother-in-law had died.

“The event was a real scrap because I hadn't been performing to my best. Then, in the third round I jumped the winning jump. I knew that would probably be good enough but I had to wait and when the Russian went out I knew I had it.

“It was sheer relief because I was 34, had been world record holder for five years, I was second in Atlanta when I was expected to win and had been second and third at World championships.

“It was just a relief that I had done it and then it was so emotional.”

Now he wants more kids to live the same emotional roller coaster.

Edwards' Olympic ideals

Favourite Olympian: Carl Lewis

Greatest Olympian: oh, erm... impossible

All-time sporting hero: John McEnroe

Favourite stadium: Sydney Olympic stadium

What you love most about Olympics: the atmosphere, the scale

What you dislike most about Olympics: having to share a room with someone else

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