This weekend, Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th January, the England Athletics Combined Events championships in “short track” heptathlon and pentathlon return to the EIS in Sheffield.
Much has happened in British combined events since this time last year.
Britain again has a world champion combined eventer, thanks to Katarina Johnson Thompson’s epic tussle with Anna Hall to win gold in Budapest.
The 8000-point mark has been breached in the decathlon by a Brit for the first time since Tim Duckworth in 2018, as Jack Turner landed 8011 during the 2023 US college season. That score that would have put him in contention for a medal at the European U23 championships in Espoo last year, had he not had to withdraw with injury.
Sammy Ball, who shone at this meet in January 2023, would go on to be the world leader in U20 decathlon right up until the European U20 championships in Jerusalem in August, where injury sadly also took him out of contention.
Jade O’Dowda stepped up to take second place at Multistars in April, splitting the Americans Taliyah Brooks and Chari Hawkins and qualifying easily for Budapest by ranking. Unfortunately, the arbitrary BA standard for heptathlon – significantly out of synch with global heptathlon standards in 2022-23 – ruled Jade out of Worlds. Hawkins, who went into Budapest with a PB lower than Jade’s score from Götzis this year, finished top eight in the world and is now ranked 11th. Ironically, top eight was the result the British selection system decided that O’Dowda could not achieve.
Meanwhile, British combined eventers came together as a community to express concern about the way combined events are treated compared to other events, via an online petition. At the time of writing there are still no British combined events championships on the World Athletics calendar.
The athletes’ concerns arose initially due to the ejection of combined events from the main UK championships, losing the benefit of crowds and atmosphere enjoyed by their counterparts in other events.
However, the more significant underlying issue is the lack of clarity on how British decathletes and heptathletes can plan their season and seek to collect the rankings points that are a critical element of qualification for major championships.
England Athletics have done a good job in securing places for English athletes at the Category B meet in Tallinn, a World Combined Events Tour Silver meeting, in early February. This weekend’s meeting in Sheffield will act as selection for that.
However, an athlete would need to achieve sixth place in Tallinn – a stacked international meet in both men and women’s fields – to secure the same number of rankings points as for first place in a national championship.
The absence of a high-quality national championships for combined eventers in the UK therefore puts them at a disadvantage compared to their international counterparts. For example, the Austrians have announced their 2024 national heptathlon championships will be incorporated into Götzis, the greatest combined event in the world. The French have announced that they will extend their combined events championship opportunities beyond the usual suite to include women’s decathlon.
The only hope on the horizon for UK athletes is a promise from Jack Buckner, the CEO of British Athletics, of a “festival of combined events.” When, where and what that festival will be, we don’t know. Strange times for combined events in the land of the current world heptathlon champion.
Back to the combined events in Sheffield and in 2023 the championships were a celebration of the Sams in the heptathlon – Sammy Ball in the U20 event, and Sam Talbot in the senior competition. Sam senior returned from several years in the wilderness to overhaul previous champion Lewis Church, and Harry Maslen who was third. Talbot’s final score in 2023 was 5823 points, the best mark by a British athlete since Tim Duckworth’s 6156 to win European silver in Glasgow in 2019. Church also added almost 100 points to his lifetime best in second with 5587, and Maslen’s 5559 exceeded his 2019 5506 NCAA mark (on an oversized track).
For 2024, Talbot and Church return to do battle, joined on this occasion by Harry Kendall rather than Maslen. Kendall’s best decathlon performance in 2023 was third place at the Portarathlon in Naxos, scoring 7702. Church won the British outdoor title and finished 10th at Multistars, but Talbot’s year was cut short after his indoor success. While those three duke it out for the English honours, the field is strengthened by the best of the Scots, including Will Hodi and Callum Newby.
The senior pentathlon had a strong international flavour in 2023, as the USA’s Kaitlin Smith won from Germany’s Laura Voss, while Jordanna Morrish claimed the national title as first Englishwoman. The U20 pentathlon was lively too, coming down to the last event, when Bryony Bovell’s superior 800m allowed her to overtake Lucy Fellows and win by a mere 20 points.
This year, Jordanna Morrish returns to defend her title while Wales’ Lauren Evans and Northern Ireland’s Anna McAuley promise a strong challenge. Jodie Smith is in there too. However, 20-year-old Abi Pawlett has already taken a chunk out of her 60m hurdles PB this season and looks set to continue her upward trajectory of recent years.
Finally, a word of caution for stats-trackers. Over and above World Athletics’ decision last year to only recognise results from events approved and included in their official calendar, we now have the additional complication of “short track” nomenclature. The online statistics are still catching up with the classifications, but things are about to get even more complicated.
In the coming weeks there will be women’s short track pentathlon, women’s short track heptathlon (in Clermont Ferrand) and men’s short track heptathlon. Outdoors we’ll have women’s “long track” heptathlon (different from the women’s short track hep) AND women’s “long track” decathlon. So, get your thoughts and prayers in for the poor statisticians trying to manipulate decades of combined events stats into new formats.
For now, here’s hoping a great combined events weekend in Sheffield will result in some early world short track leads.
The start lists for Sheffield can be found on the Roster App; live analysis and results will be shared on the Decathletes of Europe twitter account @decathletesofeu, and standings and videos will be on the Decathletes of Europe Instagram account @decathletesofeurope.