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The Other Giant Leap for Mankind

How Jonathan Edwards set a world record that’s still standing 20 years later

Ben Oakley
The Open University

In the late evening Scandinavian sun at the 1995 World Athletics Championship, Jonathan Edwards, a British triple jumper, was the tenth to jump out of of 12 finalists. He took a minute to collect himself, then sped down the runway to jump 18.16m, breaking his own world record by 18 centimetres.

Edwards wandered around in a contented daze, waiting for the distance to be displayed when he heard the crowd roar as they saw the scoreboard before he did. The jump was valid. Then, 25 minutes later Edwards went again; he looked incredibly relaxed before he sprinted for his second celebratory jump, whose rhythm and smoothness produced a further distance of 18.29m. The stadium exploded in a tumult of shared joy of witnessing something very special.

And very special it was – that record has stood for 20 years now. In a world where athletes constantly shave millimetres, seconds and nano-seconds off previous bests, that jump in 1995 is assuming the status of a mythical feat. The closest anyone else has got is 20cm away – Kenny Harrison (USA) at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. More recently, Cuban Pedro Pablo Pichardo’s steady annual improvements have seen him come within 21cm.

How did Edwards do it? He described it as a magic combination of timing and speed, power and touch. And studying his 2001 authorised biography, A Time to Jump, and his subsequent public comments can give us more insight.

Early years

A key ingredient in Edwards’s success was a genetic blueprint that meant he had raw speed on the track (according to his biography, his best 100m time is 10.48 sec). Speed as you approach take-off in triple and long jump is one of the key pre-requisites of success, since it translates into horizontal distance when jumping. But genetic potential is the relatively easy part; the rest is a blend of multiple factors.

Growing up in Ilfracoumbe, a modest town in Devon, South West England, helped. Where you grow up influences the likelihood of sporting success with small towns enabling a more supportive developmental climate. It’s often better to be a big fish in a small pond. West Buckland private school also allowed Edwards to thrive in a diverse range of sports including rugby, basketball, tennis, athletics, cricket and gym.

Participating in a rich mix of different sports in childhood is the optimal preparation for future success in most sports. Learning to move in varied ways is the best foundation, rather than specialising in one sport from an early age which might be called “extreme nurture”. Edwards eventually concentrated on jumping at the age of 21.

At school, his diminutive stature earned the nickname of “Titch” and a birthdate in May magnified his late physical development in comparison with others in his school year. A concerned PE teacher was frightened to select him for inter-school rugby fearing for his safety. Children born in May, June, July and August, the youngest in their school year, are less likely to get selected for squads in adolescence, but are more likely to achieve senior professional status: a reversal of the relative age effect. The additional challenge experienced by these initially disadvantaged younger athletes is thought to build resilience – a key component for success.

18 metre man.
John Giles/PA

Faith and training

To succeed, champions need to learn their craft. After graduating in Physics from Durham University, the 1988 Olympics was his first major event at the start of his elite development. Fortunately his body responded well to training and he mostly stayed injury-free, both of which are starting to be recognised as having genetic components.

An international athlete’s craft involves refining diet, responding to coaching analysis, conditioning in the gym and making wise travel arrangements. While in the arena, optimising the warm-up, saving energy for competition and coping with pressure all need to be incrementally developed through experience.

After six years of full-time training, aged 27, following disappointment at both the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, Edwards made the World Championships podium (bronze) having leapt 17.44 metres. Jumping a whole metre further seemed impossible at that time.

Athletes need to be fascinated with this process of improving. The paradox is that they need to be able to make sense of this seemingly selfish pursuit; a need to be content with the purpose of their lives. At times Edwards battled with realising his talent and fulfilling his strong Christian obligations which until 1993 meant he would not compete on Sundays. His evangelical faith helped make sense of optimising his jumping talent: it was in service to God. Many years later, in retirement and after losing his faith, he said that looking back “faith gave me more perspective on success or failure, it was my sport psychology in a way”.

A further ingredient of success is rest and recovery. Edwards was forced to recuperate after contracting Epsterin Barr virus in 1994; it meant he was revived as he eased his way back into training. It also gave him time to think deeply about his jumping technique including a new two-arm swing skywards.

The big jump

The final ingredient in the mix is supreme confidence. Edwards’s 1995 season started well. A national record in his first contest, he was on his way. Then in June he achieved the longest leap of all time, 18.43m in Lille. Unfortunately the jump was only a hair’s breath, 0.4m/sec, over the legal wind threshold. But he had re-defined the parameters of the sport.

He first broke the world record properly weeks later in Salamanca with 17.98m. Then came Gothenberg and his place in history. Watching the footage of his second, record-breaking jump, you can see that on the runway he is relishing the moment having just broken the world record again minutes previously. He knows he might do it again and is supremely confident and relaxed.

Later, he admitted that if he could combine the physicality of Gothenberg with the technical perfection of Lille he believed 18.60m was possible. He never achieved such a distance, but five years later he won gold in the 2000 Olympics, aged 34.

Jonathan Edwards’ path from a cherubic vicarage schoolboy to the 20th anniversary of his enduring triple jump world record reveals rich insights about the complex jigsaw of podium success.

Often discussions of elite athletics all too easily fall into a facile nature-nurture debate. Probing athlete’s biographies alongside research can reveal fascinating and varied routes to the top. And there are few higher (or further) athletic achievements than that great leap in 1995.

Ben Oakley is Head of Childhood, Youth and Sport at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Real Olympics

Guest post by Jonathan Eyers

There are only so many guest posts you can write for a sports blog before you have to finally confess you’re just not that into the whole thing. It’s not that I’m apathetic about sport. In fact, since Euro 96, when my disinterest was punished with dead arms, I have actively loathed everything to do with it. The nadir of Gareth Southgate’s career was the zenith of my interest in sport. I imagine I enjoyed that penalty as much as the Germans did.

I could start ranting about how sport brings out the imperialistic tendencies of otherwise sensible people, but it’s not just the desire to avoid sounding like a tuft-bearded lentil-eating nineteen-year-old economics student from West London that stays my typing hand. Because the truth is, I’ve been just as enthusiastic about the Olympics as anyone. And all the naysayers and doom merchants just made me more so (except when they castigated the logo; they were right about that).

The only big national events we tend to do in this country are royal weddings, royal funerals and royal jubilees. Celebrating anything else is just a bit too American for us. Perhaps that’s why the Olympic opening ceremony has ensured Danny Boyle will be Sir Danny by January. We could all get behind this barnstorming vision of Britain and pretend the show was just for the rest of the world’s benefit. Because, of course, the rest of the world understands the shipping forecast…

Yes, the spirit of national unity and bonhomie didn’t last long, with partisan oiks from the Daily Mail to the Guardian claiming the next day that the ceremony represented only their worldview, and that it must have infuriated their political enemies, and that this was a good thing. But for the rest of us, the ceremony set the tone for not just a national event but an international one, and one which transcended sport.

I applied for about £1,000 worth of tickets, which was apparently pretty typical (though perhaps not for someone with my professed level of interest in sport). All I got was the fencing (men’s sabre final), which I ultimately enjoyed, but it was at ExCeL, out in the Docklands. I was disappointed not to get anything at the Olympic Stadium. It somehow didn’t feel like I was going to the real Olympics when I got off at Stratford and then went in the opposite direction to the Stadium.

So when I heard in early August that there were still tens of thousands of tickets for the Paralympics left, I made a beeline to get online, and looked only for events at the Stadium. I was in luck. Not only were there still tickets for athletics left, but some of them were in the £10 category too. (I do work in publishing, after all.)

One of the benefits of not being particularly interested in sport before the Olympics is that I was immune to any ideas of sporting celebrity. Most of the sportsmen I could name I had only heard of for their extracurricular activities (with or without their wives and girlfriends). The only Olympians I was really aware of before the end of July were Usain Bolt and Tom Daley. Even when I was seeing famous British competitors, I had no idea who they were. It didn’t really matter to me.

As soon as I started expressing enthusiasm for having got tickets to Stadium events at the Paralympics I picked up on this sense from some people that the Paralympics weren’t the real Olympics, and not in the same way that events at ExCeL hadn’t felt like the real Olympics to me. I definitely got the impression there was more to it, that the Paralympics are considered inferior because most Paralympians (Oscar Pistorius notwithstanding) are less famous (and for reasons few would openly admit, I’m sure).

Of course that wasn’t an impression borne out by the reaction of the crowd in the packed Stadium when 80,000 of us watched Mickey Bushell win his heat in the 100m. Decibels reached unsafe levels, I’m sure. (I can only imagine the sound level when he won the gold medal in the following day’s final.) It certainly all felt real at that moment, and any distinction between Olympic and Paralympic less so.

I could end with a slightly sourpuss suggestion that Mo Farah, Ellie Simmonds or Bradley Wiggins would be better role models than our much-idolised footballers, but instead I’ll finish in the same way my Paralympic experience ended, with tens of thousands of people singing our national anthem following David Weir’s gold medal ceremony. Listen carefully and you might even hear the American next to me swept up by the nation’s mood and joining in.

Going the Distance

Though I managed to complete my first 10K this year and my netball team was promoted (we’ve since won only two matches), I wasn’t too surprised to not be shortlisted for the BBC Sport Personality of the Year Award 2011. Sidestepping the political furor that seems to have erupted regarding the omission of any shortlisted women, I thought I would focus instead on the achievements of those who have been selected. Reading the list of nominees, what’s stood out for me as a key trait within all those that have been selected is stamina.

Alistair Cook and Andrew Strauss have stood their ground at the crease. Golfers Darren Clarke, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy have all kept their nerve to succeed. Murray continues with his struggle to win a Grand Slam title, though came heartbreakingly close again … maybe next year, Andy.

5,000m World Champion  But my two favourite contenders are without a doubt Mo Farah and Mark Cavendish. Mo’s had a great year winning gold in the 5,000m at the World Athletics Championships and coming a stealthy second in the 10,000. (Mo finished the BUPA London 10k before I’d even started…) He’s without a doubt Britain’s greatest ever long distance runner. Cav, on the other hand, is the world’s fastest man on two wheelsThe Manx Bullet. Going the distance, he’s won the Road World Championships 2011 and the green jersey in the Tour de France.

Both these athletes more than deserve to win this award and I’ll be rooting for them on the 22nd December. Who will you be voting for?



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