Phillips Idowu: The Olympic Gold Medalist That Never Was

Callum Walker

Phillips Idowu was a triple jumper known to the public for his eccentric personality. In the years he was a competitor, he adopted a number of different hair colours as well as an array of facial piercings whilst his trademark booming laugh was symptomatic of his joyful nature. On the track, Phillips had a great deal of success; being crowned European, Commonwealth and World Champion over the years. But, there is one medal – the most prestigious of all – that simply avoided him: the Olympic gold.

Brilliant sportsman

First of all, let’s not deny the fact that Idowu was an outstanding competitor. He took his first gold medal in the 2004 Commonwealth Games held in Melbourne and accumulated six gold medals altogether, along with three silvers and one bronze. Idowu also held the longest jump recorded in the 2008 and 2009 seasons with 17.75 metres and 17.73m respectively and his largest ever – 17.81m – is a target surpassed by only a handful of athletes.

Jonathan Edwards

However, it did not help Idowu’s cause that, throughout his career, he was overshadowed by the magnificent athlete that was Jonathan Edwards. A man who held the season’s best five times and whom still holds the world record of 18.29m that he set in 1995, Edwards was simply the one to be cherished by the British public and media. The superiority of Edwards was epitomised when Edwards beat Idowu to Commonwealth Gold in 2002.

And, even when Edwards retired in 2003, his shadow still very much haunted Idowu; Edwards was retiring as Great Britain’s most successful medal winning athlete, how could Idowu ever replace him?


It was not about replacing Edwards though, it was about making the most of the opportunity to now become the world’s best. Idowu, however, was never consistent enough. In 2006, for example, he would win Commonwealth Gold only to flop in the European Championships later that year.

And, as far as the Olympic games were concerned, Idowu never stepped up to the mark.

That elusive gold

Idowu’s first Olympic venture was in 2004 in the baking hot city of Athens. However, luck had not been on his side the year before. Suffering a severe knee injury that required surgery, Idowu had hoped that he could recover his fitness and form in time for the Olympics.

Even though Idowu competed, it is fair to say he was not at the top of his game. With a less than satisfactory build-up, Hackney-born Idowu had no chance of earning a medal let alone gold and ended up finishing twelfth after failing to register a clean jump.

Beijing 2008

Wind the clock forward four years and, with the titles of European Indoor and World Indoor Champion still fresh in his armoury, Phillips Idowu was preparing to take the Olympic title. Despite arriving as the undisputed favourite, Idowu could only manage silver with Portugal’s Nelson Évora scooping the gold. Idowu’s best jump was 17.62m, achieved in the third round, a massive 0.13m behind the jump which won him gold in the same year’s World Indoor Championships.

“I would have liked to go to the London 2012 Olympic Games as defending Olympic champion and I can’t believe I’m standing here disappointed with silver but I am. I can’t complain about the silver but I’m a winner and I had been undefeated coming into this. This is the one I didn’t want to lose.” Phillips Idowu.

If Idowu had got anywhere that length, he would have taken gold as he was just 0.05m behind Évora’s best. Quite obviously devastated, Idowu’s hopes of Olympic gold now rested on the competition that would take place in his native city and country in four years time.

London calling Idowu

By 2012 Idowu’s ‘time’ had perhaps gone. 2010 had seen him register his best ever jump of 17.81m at Barcelona’s European Championships and in 2011 he had received an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for “services to athletics” – a clear sign that his career was winding down. Idowu was not helped by the fact that he was yet again battling for fitness ahead of the Games and had not jumped competitively for nearly three months.

But, this was London: his home, his chance to win that elusive gold where it mattered most, surely he could deliver what his career had promised. It was not to be; Idowu was clearly struggling and failed to make it past the qualifying round, thus ending his chances of a medal. Whilst the likes of Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah were treated as heroes for their exploits, Idowu simply left the track in ignominy.

By the time the next Olympics – in Rio – would come around in 2016, he would be 36; in reality, London had been his last opportunity and one which had sadly passed him by.

End of career

After receiving leg surgery in autumn 2012, Idowu continued to struggle with fitness and form during 2013 and therefore announced that he was “taking a step back” from the sport “for the foreseeable future”.

“After some careful consideration I have decided that I will be taking a step back from athletics. I feel this is the right time for me to make this decision and it’s not a choice I’ve made lightly.” Phillips Idowu.

Many interpreted this decision as tantamount to retirement, but Idowu did return to top-level international competition at the Shanghai Diamond League meeting in May 2014. In doing so however, Idowu failed to hit any of his previous heights and disappeared from the sport.

Off the track

Trouble, in recent years, has never been far away from Idowu. He fell out spectacularly with the previous performance director of British Athletics, Charles van Commenee, after withdrawing from the European Team Championships in 2011 via Twitter. Idowu had famously said that van Commenee was a “liar” who talked “crap”, which really isn’t the best way to get along with your boss.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a criminal record was soon to follow. In 2013 Idowu was banned from driving for two years and ordered to complete 50 hours community service after being caught drink driving.

And, it was also reported that in 2016 he ‘cut off’ his baby daughters after splitting up with their mother, Lyndsay Alleyne, via text.

“He hasn’t been in touch with his children or their mum for a long time. It’s hard for Lyndsay. Everyone is devastated for their children.” A friend of Lyndsay Alleyne, April 2016.

Away from the Olympic games, it appears as though Idowu’s form has been far from golden too. It is however sad that Idowu never fulfilled his potential on the Olympic track, because, after all, it was the only gold he failed to win in his illustrious career.


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