On Radio Five Live there has been (maybe there still is?) an energetic, occasionally impassioned debate over Phillips Idowu. Some of it undoubtedly about his performance – his failure to qualify – in the Olympic triple jump earlier. Darren Campbell, the former sprinter turned pundit gave a spirited, sometimes spiky defence of the athlete, at one stage removing himself from the debate so as to avoid the temptation to vocalise too crudely his fury. Punchy and counter-punchy? People get like that about Phillips, it seems.
There is context and there is baggage and there is opinion here. And there is unmistakably the spectre of race. For Idowu is a black Londoner with attitude; and yes, I do appreciate that may be a remark I need to explain, or engulf with my usual distractingly sparkling psycho-cobblers.
Idowu has competed with distinction for the best part of a decade in an event which tops the dodgy knees and ankles league; the triple jump. Where stresses on joints and limbs are unfeasibly massive due to the pace and compression at work through the 3 phases. As well as bringing real competitive energy to the event, Idowu has brought an extra dimension – interest.
Those particular ‘characters’ elevated through their sporting prowess to the grandest of stages find there a particular kind of expectation. (Do we not shout loudest at them or for them?) Some court that – a certain Jamaican sprinter bolts to mind – whilst some bungee-jump between an apparent need to be in, then out, of the limelight. It smacks of moodiness and sometimes of genius; and sometimes, for us the audience, it just doesn’t quite come off.
Throughout his career Phillips Idowu has displayed both a penchant for a peacock strut and a significant persecution complex. Like many people who succeed, that stuff helps to drive him, you suspect. It may not, however, endear him or them to lesser mortals on the sidelines and in Idowu’s case his profile may just be more significant than his fan base. I’m thinking in particular – though not exclusively – that Phillips epitomises much of what the Daily Mail readership fears and (actually, I’m afraid) loathes. Him being in their view a discomfiting, belligerent black presence. (Incidentally, their view stinks.)
It should be unremarkable but…he has been known to apply (why wouldn’t he, as a young bloke?) punkily provocative flashes of colour to his Sarf Landun barnet, thus further denuding his place in the hearts of the anglo-saxon, slacks-wearing classes.
In addition, either he or some pallid, six-bellied tattoo-artist has jabbed shiny metal stuff through his face in a way that some find attractive, some repellent. He maybe does also have something of the loner about him… plus that ubiquitous alpha male swagger favoured by young guys making a point about something… by how they walk. And it may or may not be relevant to this single Olympian episode but he evidently hates the GB Athletics Team Manager and this unwise emotion seems reciprocated. Oh… and he has been one of the very best triple jumpers in the world for several years.
So why the negativity? What did he do, exactly?
If there is such a thing as a generality here – and on reflection, perhaps there are too many loaded ones, too many dangerous ones? – it seems generally true that folks have responded to Idowu’s failure with vitriol rather than calm. A bundle of tweeters or listeners to R5Live seeming weirdly pleased or even gratified that the athlete underperformed – for whatever reason. Campbell was perhaps a fair counterweight to this hostility but throughout all sides were flailing rather than balletically Jonathon-Edwardsing through a series of renegade body-movements masquerading as arguments. Perhaps the barely reined-in splatter-gun that was Campbell’s anger spoke most articulately of all. (About all of us?)
But let’s get back to the sport. An undercharged rather than visibly injured or athletically compromised Idowu failed by some distance to reach the 17.10m qualifying distance; something he went on to say he might normally “do off 8 paces.” He himself seemed on the bemused side of disappointed rather than extravagantly gobsmacked. That may have been shock but I fancy not. He hinted at the need for an operation but was clear on his lack of current or immediate pain. Meaning that his Olympic experience, or the explanation of it, was pretty much as contradictory, as flawed, as our perception of him as sub-gangsta in the hood. The thought strikes that perhaps Phillips Idowu’s relationships – with people, with instruction or necessary order, with life, with us – are often this way.
I’m very much with @barneyronay in thinking this is a shame. A shame for such a bright, individual talent to get so cruelly, disinterestedly squished. He feels sadly reduced somehow, by the fact and the manner of such a non-qualification. Previously major meets have often been hugely enriched by Idowu’s broiling presence as well as his top-draw athleticism. He has always been watchable in the way other athletes may not have been. Look – how many other world class triple-jumpers from the current generation can you name? See. There is some kindofa case there to be rested.
Remember this set-back is not the beginning for Phillips Idowu; surprisingly, he is much closer to elder statesman than sparky junior, despite appearances (or disappearances.) Indeed it seems that much of what has ‘gone on’ – the team communications black hole, the verbals, the antagonism – suggest immaturity on his part rather than physical or emotional confidence. So does that aura of his lack real authority? Is this another alpha male down on power? Is any of that relevant? To this performance? And why have so many seemed so belligerent in responding to his Fall?
There may be a simple reminder here (amongst the more uncomfortable stuff around race?) that brilliance and foolishness so often do cohabit in the souls of the gifted. The percentages, the parts played out in this triple-fascinating case by psychology and by physiology we – or I – can only imagine. Imagine and then maybe post/pontificate/tweet about; revealingly.
Meanwhile (the record shows) Phillips did fail.