His moment is replayed on a billboard-sized video screen at the front of a sweeping hall in London's Park Lane Hotel: A pale, slender man in blue singlet and shorts, his dark hair flecked with gray, sprints the length of a narrow red path, jumps into the air, skips twice along the ground like an oversized child in a frantic game of hopscotch and lands softly in deep sand. The announcer brays as the hall fills with music and then with loud applause. On the screen the man leaps from the sand and runs about in mad celebration. And at a round table near the front of the hall, Jonathan Edwards smiles and thinks what he always thinks: It seems like somebody else up there on the screen.
The occasion is a mid-December luncheon celebrating the Daily Express Sports Awards, at which Edwards will be named British Sportsman of the Year. But his emotions were scarcely different on the clear, cool evening last August in Göteborg, Sweden, when he shook the World Track and Field Championships by twice breaking his own triple jump world record and by becoming the first man to break the 18-meter (59'¾") and 60-foot barriers. After his second record jump (60'¼") Edwards stood in a swarm of photographers as Ullevi Stadium quivered in appreciation, and he thought, This is crazy. Athletes just don't do this kind of thing. At least I don't do this kind of thing.
Edwards does, of course, do this type of thing, having in one remarkable summer obliterated a 10-year-old triple jump record and so dominated the event that he now owns the four longest triple jumps in history. But he has been so modest that it all feels like some sweet, innocent dream—to him, to us, to his peers.
He is a wisp of a man, a shade over 5'11", weighing less than 160 pounds. He has a miler's body. At home in Newcastle, near the northeast coast of England, his training partners chide him about his "woman's legs." Edwards, 30, is the oldest son of an Anglican vicar, and if you were to see him in a tweed jacket and corduroys you might think him not an athlete but a secondary school teacher. His younger brother is precisely that.
Before last year Edwards had never jumped farther than 57'2¾", and not much more was expected of him. "If you had asked me who would be the first man to jump 18 meters, or 60 feet, Jonathan's would have been the last name I would have given you," says Jerome Romain of Dominica, who took the triple jump bronze medal in Göteborg.
Nevertheless, Edwards did to the triple jump what Bob Beamon once did to the long jump and Sebastian Coe did to the 800 meters, and he handled the heady experience with surpassing dignity. He arrives in Atlanta not only as one of the overwhelming favorites in track and field but also as one of the best-liked competitors. "It's a bit of a cliché to call someone 'nice,' " says Coe, now a member of the British Parliament. "But Jonathan is truly a ray of light in athletics." Says British heptathlete Denise Lewis, "Track is an incredibly bitchy sport, but no one criticizes Jonathan. And who could?" Even Mike Conley of the U.S., the '92 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump and one of the most tenacious competitors in the history of the event, says, "I can't bring myself to get mad at Jonathan. I can only get mad at what he jumped."
In Göteborg, after breaking the world record on his first two attempts, Edwards passed up his third so that Brian Wellman of Bermuda, who jumped immediately after him, might take a clear shot without distractions. Wellman had fouled twice and was in danger of falling out of the competition. "He said to me, 'I won't go this time, Brian, so you can concentrate,' " said Wellman, who went on to take the silver medal. "Is that awesome? We're talking about a cool guy here."
When the competition was finished, Edwards congratulated all the officials. "Well, they work for free, you know," he says.
Edwards later sent a page from the meet program to Willie Banks, the U.S. triple jumper who held the world record of 58'11½" from June 1985 until last July, when Edwards broke it with a leap of 59 feet in Salamanca, Spain. On the page Edwards wrote: