You are the man who made the triple jump what it is today.
It was very exciting for me to break your record and I look forward to meeting you in Atlanta.
Edwards walks out the front door of the hotel onto bustling Park Lane and is rushed by two dozen people who have waited in the cold for his autograph. He obliges them, penning his name with a flourish as his fingers turn numb, and when he finishes he climbs into the backseat of a hired car that will take him to Heathrow Airport. In two nights, in Monte Carlo, he will be honored as track and field's male athlete of the year (having beaten out U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie and Algerian miler Noureddine Morceli), and one night after that, back in London, he will be named BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He will return to Newcastle as the most famous athlete in Britain.
It all seems so sudden and so unlikely. The car sits idling in thick London traffic as twilight falls over the city. "If it were somebody else who had done all of this, I would hold that person in awe," Edwards says. "But now, to be that person...well, I can't get my head around." He is silent for a moment as the darkness deepens. "I feel like I'm in an armchair, and I'm watching my own life."
At the beginning there was family, and there was faith. At the behest of the Church of England, the Reverend Andy Edwards and his wife, Jill, lived in London (where Jonathan was born in 1966), Bristol, Blackpool and Teignmouth. In 1976 they were assigned to the village of Ilfracombe, a breathtakingly beautiful seaside resort in southwest England, facing north across Bristol Channel to the south coast of Wales. Jonathan was 10 years old; his brother, Tim, was eight; and their sister, Rachel, was nearly two. The family would live in Ilfracombe for 13 years.
Jonathan strolled through West Buckland School, a private school 19 miles south of Ilfracombe, excelling in every area. He was chosen to be a prefect in the senior class. Athletically he was a four-letter man: cricket, rugby, soccer, and track and field. In his final season, 1984, he won the English Schools' championship with a triple jump of 49'3". This he accomplished on talent alone. "My memory is of not training much," he says. He went on to Durham University, near Newcastle, to study physics. He had little athletic ambition; only his father's prodding kept him involved in triple jumping. "He didn't take it seriously," says Andy. "I encouraged him to keep training."
Throughout his growth from child to adult, Jonathan's faith was an abiding influence. The Edwards family studied the Bible at night, and the children's social lives in Ilfracombe revolved around church gatherings. When Jonathan graduated from Durham in 1987 and began working in a cytogenetics laboratory in Newcastle, he looked for a church in the city. He found two—one Anglican and one Baptist—and felt more at home in the congregation of the latter. The Heaton Baptist Church is also where he met Alison Briggs, a red-haired physiotherapist from the Outer Hebrides, off the northwest coast of Scotland. Edwards and Briggs were both in the church's musical group; she sang, he played the guitar. They were married in November 1990 and now have two children: Sam, who will be three in August, and Nathan, who turns one this month.
In the summer of 1988 Edwards's faith and his athletic career came into conflict. His family had always believed that the Sabbath must be kept as a day of reflection and worship, so Edwards never competed on Sundays. But by 1988 he had become the No. 2 triple jumper in Great Britain. He was certain to make the Olympic team for Seoul, but the national trials took place on a Sunday. Edwards chose not to compete and became an instant celebrity. Television crews showed up at his church the morning of the trials (though Edwards had gone away for the weekend). "A no-hope athlete, and suddenly I'm famous," says Edwards. He was named to the Olympic team, anyway, on the basis of his prior jumps. (In Seoul he failed to qualify for the finals.) Three years later Edwards faced the same conflict and passed up the world championships in Tokyo because the triple jump finals were on a Sunday.
An inescapable parallel was drawn: Edwards was cast as the modern version of Eric Liddell, the British sprinter and devout Congregationalist who refused to run the 100 meters on a Sunday at the 1924 Olympics, even though he was favored to win the event. Liddell instead won the 400, and his story—along with that of 100-meter winner Harold Abrahams—formed the basis for the Oscar-winning 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.