Mon. Jul 4th, 2022

DECATHLON

Where else to start in talking about the world’s best decathlon but with Damian Warner: Olympic champion, Mr 9000 and the undisputed King of Götzis. Warner’s legend in Vorarlberg is such it is rumoured that the Hypo Bank are to publish a 50 euro note with Damian’s Tokyo winky face on it, in celebration of his participation this year. Damian has won Götzis six times. With such a familiar ritual every May, what new can be said about the best thing to come out of Canada since Timbits?

Well, there is something different this year. Some big goals have been ticked off Team Warner’s list since his last visit. A global outdoor title. A global indoor title. A 9000-point score and a backup score that is in itself the sixth best in history. But while being carved onto the Mount Rushmore of 9000-point decathlons is an immense honour, the ultimate honour for the greatest athlete in the world is to be considered the greatest decathlete of all time.

Debate on whether the greatest of all time is weighted towards multiple global titles and world records (Ashton Eaton) or towards the most outrageous single performance of all time (Kevin Mayer) is one for a balmy, beer-enriched Friday night in Götzis. But with an Olympic title under his belt, and only a handful points away from Ashton Eaton’s marks, if Damian truly wants to be considered the greatest of all time, he needs to get closer to Mayer’s mark.

Simply churning out another 8800 or 8900 mark is not enough for Warner, especially since he has now been joined by the US’ Garrett Scantling in that space, with the latter’s 8867 at this year’s US trials. Götzis is always where Warner lays the ground for the major championships of the year. If Warner is to find another 100 or so points, from where will those come?

There are two routes to that stratospheric score. The first is to get close to that “ideal decathlon” so beloved by athletics stattos, where an athlete hits or gets very close to their PB in every event. That’s certainly one option for Warner, squeezing out another 10 or 20 points within his range in every discipline. That approach requires everything to go right: the weather, the competition, the body. I asked Warner about this at the pre-competition press conference in Götzis:

“Consistency. It’s about putting these high-level practices together over and over again. If I can consistently score high scores, then at some point in time I’m going to have that breakthrough that I’m looking for.”

But if Damian will indulge us in some speculation from the stands, we have another theory.

Warner has hit every significant benchmark in nine of the 10 decathlon events. A sub 10.50 100m. An 8m long jump. Fifteen metre shot. Two-metre-high jump. Sub 47-second 400m. Sub 13.50 hurdles, a 50m+ discus, a 60m+ javelin and a sub 4:30 1500m. Only one event remains in which Warner typically trails a little behind his competitors. And that’s the pole vault.

Warner has never cleared 5m, and if he can improve his PB from 4.90 to 5.10, that gives him 60 points to play with – more than halfway to reducing the gap to Mayer’s record, from a single event.

Of course, Götzis is not simply the Damian Warner show, and as usual the field is stuffed with athletes from the two European decathlon superpowers, Germany and Estonia. But neither country has had a particularly good year thus far.

The German federation requires their athletes to perform at Ratingen or Götzis (and Arona for those not invited to Götzis) to put themselves in contention for selection for the big championships. In Ratingen a few weeks ago it was Tim Nowak who brought the most energy and displayed the most potential. After a super 2019 season in which he finished 10th at the world championships in Doha, Nowak’s Olympic bid was halted when he sliced his hand at the pole vault in Ratingen last year. He recovered to win the German championships in a modest sub-8000 score, but if Nowak can add another 8100+ score to his second place in Ratingen, he’ll boost his ranking from his current 26th place and should put himself in contention for Oregon.

The world champion Niklas Kaul and 2021 Combined Events Challenge winner Kai Kazmirek both had tentative starts in Ratingen, retiring after Day 1. A few weeks may have made all the difference for them, bearing in mind that Ratingen was much earlier than usual in the decathlon calendar.

Matthias Brugger tweaked his hamstring in the 100m in Ratingen so won’t start in Götzis, but 22-year-old Malik Diakité throws his hat into the ring for rookie of the year. Diakité had a superb 400m and pole vault in Ratingen, crushing his previous lifetime bests, but he lost ground in some of his other events. Hopefully in Götzis the return of the crowds can help him put everything together and get close to 8000 points. And then, of course, there is King Arthur. The European Champion in 2018, whose performance was the inspiration for this website. His career has been blighted by injury, but he’s been promisingly speedy over the hurdles in the last few weeks (14.18s), and Götzis is the first step in preparation for his defence of his European title in Munich this year.

Malik Diakite, Sophie Weissenberg, Tim Nowak, Niklas Kaul and Vanessa Grimm

The Estonians have similarly had an uneven start to the season. They already have two men qualified for Oregon, Karel Tilga and Janek Õiglane. Neither is in Götzis this weekend – Tilga was due to compete but has some nerve damage – and so attention turns to those who might be knocking on the door of that third slot for Oregon.

Maicel Uibo would of course be the obvious contender, but he hasn’t had a decent – for him – competition since Doha. He does not have the automatic qualifying mark and is currently only ranked 38th. One of those things needs to change for him to go to Oregon.

In the meantime, there are a cluster of Estonians just outside the rankings positions that would make them eligible for selection. Kristjan Rosenberg has hurt his knee and is out for the season – a significant blow since he could have made either team – but one place ahead of him in the rankings, in 30th place, is Risto Lillemets. A good score from Risto in Götzis would elevate him into contention, particularly given that Johannes Erm’s recent 8100+ score in the US college circuit gave him only paltry placing points, and Erm is only ranked 29th.

But the most intriguing Estonian to watch in Götzis is Hans-Christian Hausenberg. Hausenberg has had a challenging few years – abandoning a heptathlon in which he was going very well after 6 events in February 2021, stepping away from combined events, and changing both his coach and his mindset. But he arrived back with a bang in 2022, winning in Tallinn in February, qualifying for and finishing fourth at the World Indoors in Belgrade. This will be his debut in Götzis and despite being 23, Hausenberg has never finished a full senior decathlon. Ignore the 6568 listed as a PB – he no-marked in the discus during that competition. Hausenberg has a very different stature from most of his peers, but that does not get in the way of his decathlon skills. He is super-fast, a superb long jumper – he may well join Warner and Simon Ehammer over 8m soon – a great vertical jumper and a decent thrower. It is only the 1500m in which he struggles. Hausenberg is my top tip for the one to watch – whatever happens.

So, with Warner’s two fellow podium pals from Doha in unknown form, the main challenge ahead of time is the other half of the Canadian power decathlon duo, Pierce LePage. Pierce LePage gets very little of the credit he deserves, since he has the misfortune to only be the second-best decathlete in his country – a tough break for a guy who can do 8604. And of course, Lindon Victor is also a Götzis legend – look out for him with the travelling Estonians after the action is over – and an 8500+ guy at his best.

This isn’t Simon Ehammer’s first time starting in Götzis, but it is his chance to make it one to remember for the right reasons. His Götzis experience in 2021 was symbolic of his year overall; a blazing start to the competition followed by a no-mark. But that is all forgotten. Ehammer now has a World Indoor silver medal, national records in both heptathlon and decathlon, and he now holds the world decathlon bests, indoor and out, for the long jump. Indoors, the gap between Ehammer and Warner – and indeed Mayer in 2021 – is contracted somewhat, without the Day 2 throws in which the older men are much stronger than the Swiss, alongside the 1500m in which they are significantly faster.

But while it would be naïve to expect Ehammer to challenge Warner outright, he will challenge him in his strongest events – the 100m, the hurdles and that long jump. Ehammer’s teammate Finley Gaio won the rookie of the year in Götzis last year, where he set his PB of 7899. Gaio and Andri Oberholzer – who was invited but will not start the competition – are racing to join Ehammer over 8000 and a fully hyped crowd will provide the perfect conditions for Gaio.

In 2021 the Belgian men had a sensational competition, TVDP beating his Rio PB to finish third and Pittomvills also finishing a brilliant sixth in a lifetime best of8222. However, Pittomvills had a serious injury in Ratingen a few weeks later, and so he finally makes his return this weekend. Unfortunately, his young European U20 gold-medallist teammate, Jente Hauttekeete is delaying his debut senior decathlon due to a lower back injury that has been troubling him in recent works.

The benchmark for the class of Tallinn 2021 has been set, though, as European U20 silver medallist Sander Skotheim has posted two 8000+ marks this year, 8298 and 8126. There’s no Skotheim in Götzis – he competed at the Norwegian championships last weekend – but the world U20 champion, Frantisek Doubek will start for the first time in Götzis. It’s not his first senior decathlon – he scored a windy senior 7664 at the Portarathlon in Naxos while still a junior – but he is one to watch as he makes the transition.

Doubek might be a candidate for rookie of the year, but the European U23 silver medallist Sven Roosen might have something to say about that. With Pieter Braun announcing his retirement from decathlon this month and Eelco Sintnicolaas very much on his farewell tour, the future of Dutch decathlon rests with Roosen and Rik Taam (remember his 1000m at the European Indoors in Torun?!)

Rik Taam and Sven Roosen

Roosen’s competitors from the U23 championships Baptiste Thiery (mad skills in pole vault) and Fran Bonifačić are also in the field. This will be Bonifačić’s first time in Götzis. He broke Joško Vlašic’s (Blanka’s dad) Croatian national record in Tallinn with 7760 but lost it earlier this year to Trpimir Široki (7838) on the NCAA circuit.

Dominik Distelberger formally confirmed his retirement from decathlon earlier this week and so we will see a new Austrian face, 20-year-old Jan Mitsche. And of course, a decathlon field wouldn’t be complete without one half of the Decathletes of Europe cover star duo – the indestructible Pawel Wiesiołek of Poland, hopefully recovered from the neck problems troubling him during the indoor season.

The proximity of Götzis to the US trials has ruled out some of the big names, but finally – finally – a number of talented US decathletes will get the chance to complement their 8000+ capabilities with some decent rankings points. Joe Delgado, Jack Flood and Hunter Price all scored over 8000 in 2021 but were penalised hugely by the rankings system compared to their European counterparts. For example, in 2021 Adam Sebastian Helcelet was ranked 18th with two 8000-8060 scores, while Jack Flood – with almost identical scores – was languishing 45 places behind in 63rd because of where he lives, and where he had the opportunity to compete. Well done to the Götzis team for extending the opportunity to them.

Hunter Price and Joe Delgado set out for Decathletes of Europe what it means to compete at Götzis.

Hunter said: “Clearing 8000 last year was an exciting milestone for me as a decathlete. It provided me with reassurance that I belong at a high level after spending a couple years fighting back to the sport from a significant injury. That’s a number you chase as a young decathlete, and is the result of several years of investment into the multi – so hitting it is a good sign that things are moving in the right direction. I have much bigger goals, but that will certainly always be a memorable mark and season for me.”

“And getting the invite to Götzis is an honour! It’s a special meet that I’ve followed since I began the decathlon, as is the case for most of my peers. It’s unique because it focuses on the multi and draws such great attention to our event. The level of competition is top-notch, so to get the opportunity to be a part of it is incredible.”

“I’m looking forward to lining up with some of the best decathletes in the world and having some fun. Coming off of US Champs, I feel ready to compete at a high level so this is a great stage to do it on. To get the opportunity to do it alongside my fellow Americans, Jack Flood and Joe Delgado, is also going to be special. We have competed with one another throughout the past couple years and always work together, and get excited to put up some big marks.”

And Joe added: “I’m very grateful to have been selected to compete at Götzis. This is every decathlete’s dream and I’m honored to have the opportunity to compete amongst the world’s finest athletes. This is my first, but many more will follow.”

HEPTATHLON

While the decathlon has a clear favourite, the heptathlon is a little harder to read. There are four big, big names starting but each comes to the competition with their own baggage from the last few years.

Like her fellow world champion Niklas Kaul, Katarina Johnson Thompson ended the first day of her Olympic competition limping around the bend. She has recovered from that and, after her coach Bertrand Valcin moved post, switched to work with the busiest man in combined events, Petros Kyprianou. She had a tentative return in March to defend her world indoor title, but it was less of a defence and more of a re-entry to full competition. KJT has no need to log a heptathlon score for the world championships – like Kaul she has a wildcard – so if she is here in Götzis, she means business.

Laura Ikauniece is the 2015 world bronze medallist, but she has been beleaguered with injuries in recent years. She had a wonderful return in 2019 to finish second in Götzis and third in Talence but has had further troubles since. So – other than a big javelin throw – we don’t know what Laura will bring. Such is the case for Yargelis Rodriguez too – she made it to the Olympics but like KJT succumbed to injury.

So, it may be the Dutch who are favourites, purely based on their performance at the Olympics – Anouk Vetter, who had a sensational comeback in 2021 to win Olympic silver and break her own Dutch record, and Emma Oosterwegel, who had a huge breakthrough to take Olympic bronze.

Anouk Vetter, Sofie Dokter and Emma Oosterwegel

And then there is Kendell Williams. Now joined in her training group by KJT, Williams tends to feel her way through her first competition of the year before she has her big one. She did that indoors, where she finished second at the US indoors before going on to take bronze in Belgrade. Likewise in heptathlon, she participated in the US trials to fulfil her requirement for selection, rather than to bring 100%.

While the big names might have had a low-key year thus far, two names have been at the forefront of competitions during the first half of 2022: European U23 champion and world indoor silver medallist Adrianna Sułek and European U23 bronze medallist (and world indoor 4th placer) Holly Mills.

The 23- and 22-year-olds (respectively) have been pushing each other to bigger and bigger things, first in Tallinn last summer, then in Tallinn indoors, and again in Belgrade. While Mills is enjoying her first start in Götzis, sulked has already completed her first heptathlon of the year, 6290 in Poland. And it is a different Sułek in 2022. In 2021 the European U23 title was the big achievement and participation in the Olympics a bonus, but in 2022 Slue’s confidence has grown visibly, and she should now expect to challenge the bigger names as she improves.

Similarly, the duo from the 2019 European U20 podium have both stepped up to the big time, albeit not without their injury problems since then. Annik Kälin of Switzerland had a sublime return to competition this year, breaking Geraldine Ruckstuhl’s Swiss record in Multistars at the end of April with a score of 6398. Like Kälin, Kate O’Connor also had a challenging year in 2021 and after a national record in Multistars with 6297, she withdrew midway through the European U23 competition.

Adrianna Sułek’s teammate Paulina Ligarska was the unluckiest woman during the indoor season, posting a big PB just a day or two too late to qualify for Belgrade. She had injury trouble during Multistars, but if she’s in shape her indoor performance suggests she should be able to improve on her heptathlon PB of 6028.

Paulina Ligarska and Pawel Wiesiolek

The most impressive German this year in combined events has been in the heptathlon. In Ratingen earlier this month, Sophie Weissenberg scored 6273 to come within 20 points of her PB set in Götzis on her debut in 2019. In Ratingen Sophie was delighted to be injury free for the first time in a long time and is seeking the auto-Q for the world champs this weekend. Her teammate Vanessa Grimm, who stepped up significantly in 2021 to qualify for the Olympics, will have her first outing over the heptathlon this year.

While Holly Mills and Kate O’Connor might be a good shout for the rookie of the year in Götzis, there’s another even younger athlete making her debut this weekend. In the absence of Henriette Jaeger (who was injured shortly after Götzis in 2021) Saga Vanninen utterly dominated the U20 competitions of the season, winning both the European U20 and World U20 titles easily. The young Dutch talent Sofie Dokter won silver behind Vanninen in Tallinn, and this will be her first time in Götzis too.

The new faces in Götzis also include 20-year-old Chiara-Belinda Schuler of Austria, who added almost 400 points to her PB (5816) in Multistars; Celine Albisser of Switzerland and 17-year-old Liisa-Maria Lusti of Estonia who had a cracking indoor season.

Some familiar faces return to start their outdoor season in earnest: Ekaterina Voronina of Uzbekistan, the newly wed Esther Turpin of France, Benin’s Odile Ahouanwanhou who broke six national records in 2021, and the second US competitor, Chari Hawkins.

Hawkins has now been squeezed out of contention for selection for the US squad for Oregon, with Williams, Erica Bougard and Annal Hall all with the qualifying mark, and Michelle Atherley securing a wildcard from her NACAC win recently. However, if any of those four were to withdraw for any reason, an automatic Q or high-ranking position would give Hawkins options.

And finally, the representative from Ukraine, Yuliya Loban. Ahead of the world indoors in Belgrade she said:

“Now, at such a difficult time in Ukraine, it is very important to show that Ukraine lives, and has not lost heart. It was very important for me to be here as a representative of the country Ukraine in which there is a war. Children and their mothers are being killed; cities are being bombed mercilessly. Since I am a Ukrainian athlete, I believe that there is no need to be afraid when competing with those who are stronger. There are no invincibles!”

The competition starts on Saturday 28 May, and you can find all the details here.

Anouk Vetter, KJT, Damian Warner and Niklas Kaul