There is one thing Phillips Idowu cannot explain: the s in his first name which makes it sound more like a surname than a Christian name. “Ask my father,” he says. “I don’t know.”
That may remain a mystery but Idowu has become a major name in athletics thanks to his PE teachers at Raine’s Foundation School in East London, who decided that his dream of wanting to follow in Michael Jordan’s footsteps into the NBA was totally unrealistic.
Raine’s may have been the champion school in basketball but they stopped selecting him for the team convinced his sporting future lay elsewhere.
Now, as he sits opposite me clutching the triple jump gold medal he won at last month’s European Championships in Barcelona, Idowu’s gratitude is clearly evident.
“My first teacher, Humphrey Long, took me through my first triple jumping session,” he recalls. “Then Andy Hill stopped picking me for the school basketball team, saying I wasn’t tall enough and my future lay in track and field. He knew his stuff. I am so grateful to both of them.”
Given his love of that sport, it’s ironic that he has earned comparisons with former NBA star Dennis Rodman, although that is purely down to looks rather than personality.
“I have never tried to model myself on him,” he says. “That’s an easy comparison to make just because I compete with my hair dyed red. Or have piercings on my nose and tongue. It doesn’t define me as a person. I just wanted to change my appearance slightly and it’s easy to change your hair colour, have a piercing, add a tattoo. I like bright colours, hence the red.
“I don’t go out of my way to be different from other athletes but I don’t think I would compete as well if I changed who I was.”
So does he feel the rest of the athletic fraternity is very middle of the road?
“Boring, yeah,” he says.
Nobody could accuse 32-year-old Idowu of that. Or say he has been reluctant to court controversy, his early career being framed by his tussles with Jonathan Edwards.
The match-up between Edwards, a middle-class vicar’s son, and Idowu, a child of Nigerian immigrants brought up on a Hackney estate, could not have been starker. “Yeah, me and Jonathan clashed,” he admits. “I was a young kid trying to be a success and I’m an aggressive competitor.
That competitiveness seemed to come off the wrong way when I was competing with Jonathan. He made triple jump the big event it is. He’s still the world record-holder.”
In the past Idowu expressed his fear that he would not get out of the shadow of Edwards until he breaks his compatriot’s world record — a jump of 18.29metres set 15 years ago — or wins an Olympic gold. But now he seems to want to put Edwards behind him.
“I don’t have that much to do with him. I just compete and go home. The most interaction I have with Jonathan is when I watch my competition back on television and see what he may be saying.”
His Barcelona triumph was followed by disappointment at the Aviva Grand Prix at Crystal Palace last Friday. His best effort of 16.54m was way down on his personal best of 17.81m at Barcelona, and only good enough for sixth place in an event won by former Olympic champion Christian Olsson.
“I was just tired,” he says. “The running was good but I couldn’t get my phases together. I would have liked to have put in a good performance for the home crowd.”
But Idowu dismisses the idea it was down to inconsistency, something which dogged him throughout the earlier part of his career.
“I was young, learning my event,” says the 2009 world champion. “So there were going to be periods when I wasn’t as consistent as I should have been. But over the last four to five years I’ve been winning gold medals every year, so nobody can say I’m inconsistent.”
Indeed, he is so keen to project an optimistic mood that he even takes positives from his silver at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when he had been the hot favourite to take gold.
Idowu arrived in China unbeaten that season and having won the world indoor title five months earlier but he fell five centimetres short of the title, won by Portugal’s Nelson Evora.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” says Idowu. “If I had won gold I might not have been in the sport now. Since then I’ve gone on year after year to be a lot more successful and, hopefully, I will rectify that gold in London.”
Idowu accepts 2012 will be special — “a once in a lifetime opportunity to compete at our home games”— and has not ruled out competing in Rio in 2016, when he will be 38. Such is his desire to win gold that, unlike some other top athletes, he will compete in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October.
Heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis, captain of Britain’s team in Barcelona, has decided to rest for the remainder of the season while the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, said he would miss the Games too before a back injury made that announcement irrelevant.
But Idowu has a different take, particularly as the championships are special to him.
“It’s another gold which is what I work all year for,” he says. “I don’t want to dismiss certain competitions. At the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester I got a silver, the first time I picked up any kind of medal. In 2006 in Melbourne I won it and that was my first gold ever.
“Since then I’ve managed to pick up a gold every year. So for me it means a lot. It would be great for me to go there and defend the title, the first title of my career that I’ve defended.”
His relentless search for gold is combined with such a single mindedness when he jumps that he focuses on nothing but the sand pit in front of him, oblivious even to his rivals.
“When I jump, I am completely unaware of what the other competitors are doing,” he says. “If I think back to last year’s World Championships in Berlin, I knew who was in second place because that was the reigning Olympic champion.
“As far as who came third and fourth I did not have a clue until I got into the drugs testing area. Then I was thinking, Why is he here,’ and I realised he had come third. I’m so engrossed trying to jump and win there is so much of the competition I miss. I just listen to what my coach tells me and jump well.”
Once the competition is over all that matters to Idowu is his partner Carlita, their two children and his dog Angel.
“My family mean a lot to me. They’re the reason why I do what I do. They’re what inspire me to be successful.”
As he says this he holds out a teddy he is carrying. “This teddy on my bag is Prince’s, my little son. I have had it in Berlin and Barcelona. The family was at home, but it was nice to have this teddy just sitting on the side of the runway as I jumped. My family are always going to be there and, hopefully, they will inspire me on to more successes in my career.”
With the medals come adulation and despite all his triumphs Idowu admits he is still surprised by the attention he receives.
“Since I got back from Barcelona it’s been amazing,” he says. “Carlita had stacks of newspapers. I was on the back and front page. I jump in sand for a living. It’s amazing that the nation can get embroiled in