London 2012: Phillips Idowu targets the perfect jump
In the latest part of our weekly #olympicthursday series profiling leading British hopes, BBC chief sports writer Tom Fordyce speaks to triple jumper Phillips Idowu.
When you drive into the car park at Birmingham's High-Performance Centre, it doesn't take you long to spot how Phillips Idowu gets to work.
On the front row sits a gleaming white Range Rover with blacked-out windows, sparkling hubs and a registration plate that reads PH1L MBE.
Idowu, famous for his piercings, dyed hair and big laugh, seems at first glance a natural extrovert. The world and European triple jump champion is one of the most recognisable figures in British sport. He's also one of the least understood.
What the public seldom sees is the fastidious athlete underneath, the family man devoted to daughter D'Karma and son Prince and the complex, sometimes obsessive character who, aged 33, is intent on pulling it all together at just the right time.
"There was a part of my character a few years ago when I had to measure every single jump I did in training," says Idowu, who admits some of his behaviour can seem compulsive from the outside (he relaxes before competitions by popping his way through a sheet of bubblewrap).
"I gave myself targets off four strides, six strides, eight strides, and if I was jumping a certain distance I thought I'd be guaranteed a certain distance off my full run-up.
"But it doesn't always work like that. In order to hit the targets off fewer strides I'd have to muscle it and things weren't working technically well. Now I'm more than happy to lose half a metre off my short approach and know that my technique is working."
When we meet he cuts a calm, focused figure, wearing a white sleeveless top, navy leggings, white headband. His hair is its natural black. Coach Aston Moore puts him through a series of plyometric exercises - muscle elastic strength training - on a long sequence of padded mats, teasing out the extra centimetres that could make the difference between Olympic gold and silver.
Idowu has unfinished business at the summit of his sport. After finishing sixth in Sydney as a 21-year-old, he no-jumped three times in the final of 2004. Four years ago he travelled to Beijing as favourite but had to settle for second behind Brazil's rejuvenated Nelson Evora.
"I believe I'm a champion," he says without bombast. "There's nothing else for me except to go out there and do my absolute best. Even when I've jumped really well I can still be massively critical of my performance. Even if I've won, there's so much more I can squeeze out of this. The work I do with Aston has allowed me to do that.
"If I go there and jump a personal best I'll be happy, whatever any of my competitors do. If theirs is better, I'll take my hat off to them and shake their hand."
Idowu produced a personal best of 17.73m to win his world title in Berlin three years ago, and another of 17.81m to win the European title a year later. Even in defeat to Christian Taylor at the Worlds last summer he landed a 17.77m.
He talks of competing at the 2016 Games in Rio but is there a danger that, after 12 years at the top and with his biggest rivals a decade fresher, he may already have reached his limits?
He laughs. "Nah, not yet! Even simple stuff like hitting the board and not losing 20cm initially. In Berlin, my take-off to landing was 17.92m or something. The same thing in Barcelona. And that's still with making mistakes technically. When I actually get a jump technically right and don't land on my face, there are big things there."
I ask him if the perfect jump can really exist outside the pages of a coaching manual.
"There's a perfect jump out there somewhere, but you need a lot of luck to get the conditions. You need to be physically in the right shape… I don't know. But if I can get as close to my perfect jump as possible then I see interesting figures coming on that board.
Talking of interesting figures, when was the last time he spoke to Charles van Commenee? Last July, UK Athletics' head coach heavily criticised Idowu in a BBC TV interview, accusing him of using Twitter to announce his withdrawal from the European Team Championships. Idowu, furious, demanded a public apology that has never been forthcoming.
"Oooh." There is a long silence. "I can't recall." He shrugs. "I'm happy in the place I am, working hard with my coach. Nothing negative surrounds me in 2012."
Do the two actually need to speak? Van Commenee will help select the British squad for the Olympics but he has no involvement in the minutiae of Idowu's battle to get there.
"Aston is my coach," says Phillips emphatically. "Aston is the person I've been working with over four years. He's the person who is behind me on the rostrum, every time I win a medal, win a Diamond League. When you look at the massive improvements, they're all down to that man there."
Idowu has almost exactly the same haul of trophies as Jessica Ennis. Both were world champions in 2009, European champions in 2010 and world silver medallists last summer. As the Olympics approach, Ennis has both a higher public profile and a bigger commercial clout. Does he ever feel undervalued by the British public?
"I don't really think about it. I don't have enough time - I've got a household with two small kids, I'm training full-time.
"I am proud of my achievements. I started doing this sport because I love the sport and I believe there's a lot more I can do.
"I want the satisfaction within myself that the hard work I've put in over the last 10 years has paid off. If I've been able to be a positive role model to anyone who has gone through the struggles and hardship I've been through, that's my goal achieved. I don't need to be plastered over every billboard and TV station."
Right now he is actually on quite a few billboards, frozen mid-hop with his distinctive autograph in large font underneath. He spots the next question coming. "That's not the signature on my chequebook, trust me."
He insists that he has no idea what distance it will take to win gold in London and seems genuinely disappointed that injury has ruled out defending champion Evora.
He said: "I have to be winning against the best. I don't want to be in a competition that's lacklustre. In order to feel that I've won, I need to be competing against the best."
He is also full of sympathy for young French sensation Teddy Tamgho, the world indoor record holder banned from the sport until May after a training-camp fight with a female athlete.
"I don't know the ins and out of his situation and I didn't want to ask him.
"I know Teddy and he's a really nice kid. He's down to earth, shy and humble. Like I was as a youngster, you have this arrogance and competitiveness that shows when you're jumping. When you're off the track you're completely different."