Sat. Feb 24th, 2024

“I think my age group is one of the best in history.”

Those were the words of the 2021 World U20 bronze medallist Jose San Pastor of Spain about his peers, and it is that class of decathletes lining up again this weekend, an age group further on, at the European U23s in Espoo, Finland.

In 2021, the knock-on effects of Covid meant that the European U20 championships were switched from Bergen in Norway to Tallinn in Estonia, and the entire Tallinn podium finds itself in Espoo in 2023: gold medallist Jente Hauttekeete of Belgium, silver medallist Sander Skotheim of Norway, and bronze medallist Téo Bastien of France.

Likewise, the podium from the World U20 championships later that year in Nairobi, Kenya is here, the gold medallist František Doubek of the Czech Republic joining silver medallist Hauttekeete and San Pastor. The 19-year-olds who took second and third at the European U23s, also in Tallinn, in 2021 return for another crack at the podium, reigning silver medallist Sven Roosen of the Netherlands and bronze medallist Markus Rooth of Norway.

The Espoo field is a “who’s who” of European U23 decathlon.

This is also the first edition of the European U23s in recent years where there is a clear favourite. In 2019 in Gävle, Sweden, Germany’s Niklas Kaul and Estonia’s Johannes Erm fought tooth and nail all the way to the podium, where Kaul won the title before going on to claim the world title in Doha.

In 2021, Andreas Bechmann was a slight favourite, and continued the German streak, but was pushed hard by both Roosen and Rooth.

This year, with his progression from 5965 to 6318 and a European silver medal behind Kevin Mayer indoors, and 8298 to 8590 and a third place behind Pierce LePage and Damian Warner in Götzis outdoors, it is hard to see anyone coming close to 21-year-old Sander Skotheim.

Skotheim is qualified cleanly for the World Championships Budapest. He has the automatic standard, and unlike Roosen and Rooth, who are still have a shot given their places just outside the top 24, not reliant on rankings position in the remainder of the July qualifying period. This will not be Skotheim’s first World Championships – he participated in Oregon last year – but it is the first global championships where he has a realistic opportunity of being in the top quarter of the field. If Skotheim knocks out another big performance here in Espoo he will leave the rest of the field far behind him. But if he is saving himself for a big push for the podium in Budapest, then there is an opportunity for others to step up and challenge him for the Euro U23 title.

While Skotheim now holds the indoor and outdoor Norwegian records, marks that would be envied by nations with much larger populations, it was actually Markus Rooth who changed the game in Norwegian decathlon.

Often encountering the challenge of being the youngest in his age group – his birthday is in December, and he is less than 6 months older than Skotheim – Rooth missed out on his chance at the World U20 title in 2020 after winning bronze at the 2019 Euro U20s behind Simon Ehammer and Leon Mak in in Boras. The Covid-induced delay timed Rooth out from his chance, by 10 days, while it helped others such as Finland’s Saga Vanninen scoop up two world titles in consecutive years.

As Rooth adjusted to the senior implements, he took bronze behind Bechmann and Roosen in Tallinn in 2021 at the U23 group instead, before going on to break Martin Roe’s national decathlon record at Multistars in Grosseto in 2022. Rooth’s first score over 8000 points didn’t just scrape over – he went from 7967 in 2021 to 8307 in 2022 with nothing in-between.

An injury stemming from his blocks in Götzis has sidelined Rooth so far this season over 10 events, but he has been plugging away at individual events in the meantime, improving his hurdles PB, and all three of his throws to 14.65m, 51.60m and 66.12m respectively (although his 2m discus PB is not recognised in the new approach to WA statistics).

Sven Roosen’s breakthrough to 8000 came when he took silver in Tallinn in 2021, and he improved that to a PB of 8157 this year in Götzis. Roosen’s natural strength is in the sprints, 10.58s over 100m, sub 47s over 400m and he runs a mean sub 4:20 1500m too. His throws are decent, and it is only in his vertical jumps that he has significant improvements to make to put him in a place to move up to the next level.

Jente Hauttekeete and František Doubek stood on top of the U20 age group podiums in 2021, but both have had injuries strewn in their way since.

Hauttekeete became the first man to score over 6000 points indoors at the U20 heptathlon – albeit Skotheim joined him a few days later – and he breached 8000 for the first time at the U20 decathlon later that year in Arona. But a bout of Covid in the 2022 indoor season and a back injury outdoors made the age group transition harder for Hauttekeete. He is back on track in 2023 though, finishing second with 6059 at the X-Athletics meeting in Clermont Ferrand in January, and joining Skotheim over 8000 points, with a PB of 8075, when finishing 12th in his delayed debut in Götzis this year. He’s fit, and should bring a strong challenge to Skotheim, Roosen and Rooth.

Doubek’s ups and downs have been more marked. He was going very well at the Euro U20s in Tallinn in 2021 when he was disqualified for stepping on the line in the 400m (as was San Pastor). A few months later, World Athletics would relax the rules on this particular transgression, too late for Doubek. However, he was able to put things right a few months later in Nairobi, beating Hauttekeete to the World U20 gold medal, while San Pastor took bronze.

Doubek was invited to Götzis in 2022, where he won Rookie of the Year. During the shake-up of Czech decathlon that saw Jaroslav Baba and Josef Karas exit decathlon coaching, Doubek and his coach Míra Rucký found themselves part of Roman Šebrle’s new squad, alongside the current Czech No.1 Ondřej Kopecký. Doubek has been injured for several months leading up to the champs, but the Czech Federation have allowed him to take his place. A healthy Doubek should be right up there and troubling 8000 points, but it may yet be a season too early for him.

While the previous age-group medallists have been the natural focus ahead of the event, don’t be surprised if Germany’s Marcel Meyer causes an upset and claims a medal. Meyer has been threatening a big, big breakthrough for years, and always just thwarted by an ill-timed injury or an unfortunate no-mark. His course has steadied this year, and he improved to a lifetime best of 7983 in Götzis. Meyer is the oldest man in the field – born on 01 January 2001 – so this is last chance for an age group medal.

European U20 bronze medallist Téo Bastien has added over 80 points to his PB in the last year, and with 7976 (scored at the Defi’athlon in Montpellier the same weekend as Götzis) he is now just short of 8000.

The revelation of the U23 age group has been Spain’s Andreu Boix, bouncing back from a year lost to injury with a superb 7961 in Arona in June, adding over 400 points to his previous best. It would be a lot to expect him to improve on that so soon on his return, but don’t be surprised if the weekend ends with the first Spanish man over 8000 points since Jorge Ureña.

Spanish decathlon is currently going through a similar surge to Swiss decathlon in 2021, with Pol Ferrer hot on Boix’s heels and 2021 WU20 bronze medallist Jose San Pastor in the field too. Spain’s representative in the 2021 Euro U23s, Bruno Comin, has progressed well since then under the coaching eye of Britain’s most successful decathlete of recent times, Tim Duckworth, at the University of Washington and is also closing in on 8000 points.

While there’s no Comin in Espoo, his training partner Ollie Thorner of Great Britain is in the field, as is UTSA’s (University of Texas at San Antonio) Jack Turner. Turner recently became the first Brit since Duckworth to score over 8000 points with his 8011 this year.

While Sven Roosen has been leading the Dutch age group performances of late, the other Sven – Sven Jansons – shows signs of pulling himself into contention too. A whirlwind first two events in Ratingen this year seemed to put the Dutchman on course for something special, but injury stopped him before he could get to the end of Day 1. If he can pick up where he left off in Ratingen, Jansons can certainly improve on his current 7700s score (update: Jansons is no longer on the start lists). The third Dutch athlete in the field is Jeff Tesselaar, who finished 12th in Ratingen this year with 7489.

The sole Estonian in the field is Rasmus Roosleht, who stepped up in to 7700 space earlier this summer. The Swedish field is missing 2022 World U20 silver medallist Jacob Thelander who has had a hugely unlucky season with food poisoning at Multistars and a torn cruciate ligament in Ratingen, but 2022 bronze medallist Elliot Duvert lines up, alongside Carl Af Forselles.

Hauttekeete is joined by Thomas Van der Poel, in his debut season in the age group, and following a 7620 score to win the traditional age group meeting in Bernhausen, Germany

The French contingent also includes Pierre Blaecke (7618 in Montpellier this year) and Luc Brewin (7726 in Montpellier); and the field is completed by the 2023 Hungarian champion Zsombor Gálpál, Cincinnati’s (and Austria’s) Dominique Hall, and the Finnish home athlete, Aleksi Savolainen, who also competed in the Euro and World U20 championships in 2021.