ELL Athlete Profile — Phillips Idowu

Pic: JJ Vico

Our series, #WhatsStoppingYou, has explored the obstacles to sports participation in the ELL boroughs. Today, Alex Mistlin introduces Hackney athlete, Phillips Idowu, who overcame circumstance, poverty and adversity – only to falter in the 2012 Olympic games

While his teammates, Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford were basking in the afterglow of their “Super Saturday” victories, triple jumper Phillips Idowu was crashing out of the games after falling 9 cm short in his final qualification attempt. Having entered London 2012 as perhaps East London’s best chance of a medal — Idowu was raised in Hackney and educated in Tower Hamlets – his disappointing performance meant he received none of the acclaim or adulation granted his victorious compatriots.

But in a glittering career that spanned over a decade, Hackney native Phillips Idowu overcame both adversity and some of the world’s most highly tuned athletes in order to win gold medals at European, Commonwealth and World Championships. However, a trio of failures on the Olympic stage have unfairly relegated Idowu into his position as the forgotten man of British Athletics’ golden period. 

Phillips Idowu was born in Hackney to Nigerian immigrant parents and grew up in the area on the De Beauvoir Estate. While the area has undergone rapid gentrification since, during Idowu’s youth it was a challenging environment in which to forge an athletic career. “We’d walk up the steps back to our home and you’d see the burnt spoons and the syringes,” said Idowu in an interview with the Evening Standard. “But that was the norm, that was home. That’s just how my upbringing was,” he recalled in the lead up to 2012. 

Idowu first showed glimpses of his athletic talent playing basketball on the courts of Hackney Downs, and as a child he dreamed of a career as an NBA player. However, it was a PE teacher at Raynes Foundation School in Bethnal Green that spotted his potential as a triple jumper. “Athletics was a chance to get out of Hackney,” said Idowu. 

But before his talent would take him to World Championship gold in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, it would first take him to Mile End Stadium to train as there was no athletics track in Hackney at the time. Now, Idowu considers the increased profile of athletics to be one of his proudest achievements: “With what I’ve done, I hope I’ve changed that view and shown you don’t have to box yourself in a bracket in Hackney.”

Given Idowu’s humble beginnings it would have been fitting had he claimed Olympic gold in 2012. Alas, the London games probably came too late for Idowu to deliver his best. He was 33 by then and three years had passed since the undoubted pinnacle of his career at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. At the event, Idowu defeated Olympic champion Nelson Evora, to win the gold and become, along with Jessica Ennis-Hill, one of only two British winners that year.

Phillips Idowu in action at the European Championships in 2010. Pic: JJ Vico

That Idowu’s exploits have been largely forgotten says much, both about the high benchmark against which British athletes are judged but also about our media’s preference for the plucky underdog over the difficult champion. From 2010 on, Idowu continued performing at a high level but increasingly his off-field behaviour became a significant distraction. He pulled out of both the 2010 Commonwealth Games and 2011 European Team Championships citing the heavy burden of travel. 

After failing to report for a pre-2012 training camp, a frustrated Charles van Commenee, then head of UK athletics dubbed Idowu “the invisible man”. For what it’s worth Idowu hit back on Twitter saying van Commenee was a “liar” who talked “crap”. 

Given the acrimonious circumstances, perhaps it’s no surprise that Idowu’s games and career would end in ignominy. Still, it’s a great shame that one of Britain’s most accomplished athletes couldn’t crown his career with a homecoming victory. 

While Olympic stars like Ennis-Hill were etched into the national consciousness during that magnificent summer, Idowu has slipped back into obscurity. With his colourful hair and even more vibrant personality, Idowu likely just didn’t fit in an age where British athletes were expected to be whiter than white.

This is day four of four of our Eastlondonlines’ #WhatsStoppingYou series. Read the rest of the series here.

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