Preview: Olympic Games

What a strange path to the Olympics it has been. In any other Olympic year, after a brief respite following the major champs of the previous summer, the season is a crescendo of impressive scores, as the best on the planet clamour to be the best in history.  For the Games of the 32nd Olympiad, however, the journey was much quieter, even eerie at times. A hyperextended qualifying period to accommodate the lost year of Covid – while the right thing to do – dismantled our usual gauges of form ahead of a major Championships.

And so, the run up to the Games has the feel of combined event pilgrims traversing from all corners of the globe; emerging, blinking into the sun to greet long lost friends and rivals, and together bear witness in the heat of the Olympic flame, and the humidity of the Japanese summer.

Some have rested quietly on their 2018 and 2019 performances, patiently waiting out the pandemic. Others flared into action as the qualifying period reopened, securing the required mark of 8350 or 6420 before retreating to their meticulous preparations. And some revealed their inner machine, cranking out event after event after event in desperate pursuit of a qualifying stamp, as the clock ticked loudly towards the end of June.

DECATHLON

THE EARLY QUALIFIERS

The first automatic qualifiers for the Olympic decathlon got the job done early in 2019 on the combined events circuit; and have largely since kept their own counsel.  The world champion, Niklas Kaul, took the opportunity of the lost year to have surgery on his elbow to remedy some long-standing issues. His decathlons in 2021 have been perfunctory affairs, intended simply to satisfy the additional selection criteria of the German Federation. He competed first in Götzis where he finished 5th in 8263, and then again in Ratingen until it was clear that there was no threat of eligible German men outnumbering available team places. We have not yet seen a fully charged Kaul in 2021.

In comparison, Kaul’s teammate Kai Kazmirek attacked 2021 with a little more gusto. His decathlons in Götzis (8190) and Ratingen (8184) – which he won – were similarly controlled affairs to ensure selection.  Kazmirek finished 4th in Rio in 2016, but with Kaul’s status as world champion and the potential for teammates Tim Nowak, Matthias Brugger and Andreas Bechmann to pull out big scores in the year of the Olympics, he delivered two safe, low-key decathlons to make sure of his selection.

Lindon Victor (Grenada) and Maicel Uibo (Estonia) have similarly had low key seasons, both dabbling in some individual events this year and Maicel mirroring Kaul and Kazmirek with an unremarkable performance of 8157 in Götzis: the modest scores accompanied by the air of extended training sessions. Uibo’s Estonian teammate Johannes Erm, who qualified with his scores from his 2019 NCAA win and EU23 silver medal in Gavle has not competed at all outdoors this year.  

In contrast, Ilya Shkurenyev had a solid mid-season decathlon at the Russian champs, scoring 8300, although his participation in Tokyo hung in the balance. Despite applying in good time for his ANA status, the bureaucracy was protracted and his authorisation only came through at the last minute, just as the next candidates on the world rankings list had started eyeing up his spot hopefully.

But two men decided against a modest preparation and brought their best – an understatement if ever there was one – to the early season. Damian Warner cemented his position as King of Götzis with an unprecedented sixth win, but that became the least relevant stat of the weekend. Over two days at the end of May, Damian produced an 8.28m decathlon world best and Canadian record in the long jump – which would have won him bronze in the Olympic long jump final – and improved his own decathlon hurdles world best to 13.36. But those were not the most exciting stats of the weekend either. As the competition unfolded, it became clear that a 9000-point score might be possible. In the end, after he left Matthias Brugger and Rik Taam behind in the 1500m, Damian was on his own and there was too much to do – it might have been different with a fully committed Kaul – and he landed at 8995, the 5th best performance in history behind Roman Šebrle, Ashton Eaton’s two WRs and of course Kevin Mayer.

 It was all the more remarkable given the makeshift training arrangements Warner had endured in Canada during the worst of the pandemic, unable to access the level of training facilities available to his international rivals. In his wake, Pierce Lepage also improved his lifetime best from Talence 2019, cruising to 8534 in second.

So, among the pre-qualified, the Canadians have set the bar.

CHRISTMAS GIFTS

While the qualification period had been extended to straddle four years, it had also been suspended for a few months of 2020 to level the playing field a little for those unable to train. The period reopened on 1 December and plunged straight into the meeting organised by the French authorities in the Indian Ocean island of Reunion: fortified with Combined Events challenge status and bonus points, to permit the world record holder the opportunity to obtain a qualifying score.

Kevin Mayer had not completed a decathlon since his 9126 in Talence in September 2018.  While Vitaly Zhuk was able to draw on his performances at the European Championships in Berlin in 2018 – the rules permit athletes performances from the most recent Area Champs – no such flexibility existed for Mayer’s performance a few weeks later at Decastar.

In the end, the competition was straightforward and Mayer delivered a strong 8552. While some mainstream pre-Olympic analysis suggests that the performance, and Mayer’s form, don’t bode well for the Games, they rather miss the point of the exercise. Mayer needed a qualifying score, not a superfluous vanity mark. For an athlete who has said previously that his body can only cope with one decathlon a year, an 8500 performance in Reunion allowed him to relax and lean into his Olympic preparations. Since Reunion, Kevin has of course won the European Indoor title, but has otherwise, as usual, engaged in just a few individual competitions to tune up.

And that brings us to the natural storyline to follow in the Olympic decathlon: the duel between the two men who stood next to Ashton Eaton on the podium in Rio in 2016. The composed and considered brilliance of current Olympic bronze medallist Damian Warner, and the charismatic and on occasion chaotic genius of the silver medallist Kevin Mayer.

But just as we thought Mayer yanking himself into qualification signalled the end of the action in 2020, another three – considerably more impressive – performances came along. Within days of each other, big scores emerged from South America and Oceania where the athletics season was well underway.   

Felipe dos Santos improved his lifetime best by some 300 points to score 8364 at home in Brazil. He’s done two more decathlons in 2021, but neither have been over 8000. Meanwhile, down under, reigning World U20 champion Ash Moloney and training partner Cedric Dubler were having an absolute dream of a decathlon at the Queensland champs. Moloney’s progression is to be expected as he emerges into senior competition and improves his technique, but even taking account of that, his Oceanic record of 8492 was utterly sensational.  Dubler’s qualification could not have been more different from his qualification for Doha, which involved daily scrolling through the world lists to check whether he had been overtaken. Cedric safely secured his Olympics participation with a huge lifetime best of 8367.  Or so he thought.

Like the Germans, to be selected formally the Australians had to compete again at a designated event, on this occasion the national championships in Sydney in April. Both delivered what they needed, Moloney 8284 and Dubler 8175. If Moloney has timed his form going into the Olympics, then he will very much be in the mix at the end of day 1 – but crucially, his improvement in his weaker events means that the field can no longer depend on him fading as the competition progresses.

The story didn’t end there, however, for Dubler. He tore his hamstring tear a few weeks ago, and hence needed to prove his fitness to board the plane to Tokyo. Every day, he got a little bit closer to the metrics needed, and then – bingo! He hit the numbers, and was able to continue the journey, fortunately arriving after Sam Kendricks’ attempts to take out the entire Australian squad.  

GOD BLESS AMERICA

The next flurry of qualifications was in the USA, and first, the Spec Towns Invitation in Georgia in April. The home – to UGA anyway – duo of Garrett Scantling and Karel Tilga thumped out scores of 8476 and 8484 respectively although the arrival of bad weather meant the pole vault was moved indoors. This caused much head-scratching as to the validity of the score, despite there now being a unified world record for the vault. It was subsequently confirmed, however, that the scores were acceptable for qualifying purposes, although the circumstances are still confounding the World Athletics statistics lists. Scantling’s score was a pleasing progression from his return in 2020 and strong indoor session and placed him as the man to beat to make the US team.

However, the frustrations of the world rankings systems began to make themselves even more visible. Scantling’s monster score, even though it was an outright qualification, only placed him towards the bottom of the rankings table. The same applied to Dubler’s mark. While it didn’t matter to them, if outright qualifiers were that low in the rankings, there would be a real chance that someone within a few points of auto-qualifying would lose out to athletes with substantially lower marks. And it happened. More on that later.  

A few weeks later – with Erm still noticeably absent from competition – Tilga secured the NCAA title with 8261 points, and without the fandango of the US trials to contemplate, could focus on Olympic preparation with the Estonian team. The NCAAs also marked the departure of “Decathlon Academy” coach Petros Kyprianou from Georgia, and the end of an era.

So, onto the US trials, and the smart early season money might have been on the already-qualified Scantling, Harrison Williams and (by way of rankings) Solomon Simmons. In addition, Devon Williams, Kyle Garland (who had sparred closely earlier in the year with Tilga) and the returning Zach Ziemek would be expected to feature. You might also have half an eye on the breakthrough performances from Jack Flood and Hunter Price, both of whom broke 8000 for the first time. In the frenzied energy of the US trials, who knows what might happen?

But where few had their eye – and for this I truly seek his forgiveness – was on Steven Bastien. His 8008 in March, the first 8000-point score in the world, was entirely consistent with his previous performances and didn’t give the slightest hint at what was to come. Simply finishing in the top three wouldn’t have been enough for Bastien at the US trials since that wouldn’t move him high enough in the rankings to make him eligible for selection over Williams or Simmons. He needed the auto Q too. And what came was a sensational score of 8485, breaking 6 personal bests en route to that mark and finishing the competition with a superb 1500m, to finish second overall, behind Scantling.

Scantling’s smooth competition to win the US trials belied the years of emotion that were invested in this meet.  From 4th place in the 2016 trials, to time away from the sport, to a triumphant return to be the best in the country: the right man finished first, in 8647. His experience has helped him mature into the consummate performer. Focused, yet entertaining; powerful but steady.

And if Scantling’s return was emotional, then Zach Ziemek’s was on another level. Ziemek had been just a few points below the Olympic qualifying mark in Talence in 2019, but suffered a distressing injury at the US trials for Doha and it’s been a long road back since then. His full story is one to tell another time. But in the furnace – metaphorical and almost literal – of Hayward Field he played a superb tactical game of chess with the conditions, with his body and with his mind. He emerged with a lifetime best of 8471, third behind Bastien, and the world’s best ever combination of jumps in a decathlon at this level: 7.74, 2.14 and 5.55.

NO SWEAT, JOB DONE

Midway between the Maple Leaf brilliance and the German competence in Götzis, there was a Belgian renaissance. Thomas Van der Plaetsen turned his provisional middle of the table rankings qualification into a hard, unequivocal automatic qualification, improving his PB from Rio by almost 100 points to 8430.

Norway’s Martin Roe was similarly positioned neatly between the safety of the auto-qualifiers, and the frantic scramble to finish in the top 24, and his scores in Lana and Arona kept him out of danger, allowing plenty of time for preparation. Vitaly Zhuk’s big PB of 8331 in Götzis, combined with his 2018 European Championships performance, also kept him safe.

Pieter Braun had been high in the non-automatic placings as a result of his 7th place in Doha but was sliding down with every new performance around the world, and the absence of even a low-key decathlon to consolidate his position warned that all was not well. And it wasn’t. On 13 July – unfortunately too late for any other athletes to be invited to take up the place – Braun announced his withdrawal.

THE MACHINES

Whatever the qualification system, whatever the competition, there will always be a deadline.

And whenever there’s a deadline, there will always be athletes desperately trying to squeeze one more performance in to make the cut. 

The balance is to do enough to qualify without putting yourself in a position where you render yourself unable to do yourself justice when the time comes, or worse, create problems for the long term.

But that balance is calibrated differently when it’s the Olympics, only once every 4 (or indeed 5) years. Most multieventers will only realistically have 2 or 3 shots at making the Games. So, the risks often seem worth taking.

And so, the great qualification dash began. First was Jorge Urena, not too badly positioned after his Euro indoor silver, but keen to put the outcome beyond doubt. He was thwarted in Arona by a minor ankle injury but recovered to secure a score of 8073 – more valuable for rankings than his 8261 from May – at the Spanish championships later that month.

The Czechs had the most painful experience in qualification, with the trio of Adam Sebastian Helcelet, Jan Dolezal and Jiri Sykora slipping in and out of contention in the last few places. Dolezal had enjoyed an early cushion in the rankings, with his 2019 performances in Lana and the Czech champs securing him a mid-table spot. He wasn’t able to build on that in 2021, failing to finish any decathlons and as others passed him, he slipped down towards the bottom of the table, although still the highest positioned of the Czechs.

Meanwhile Adam Sebastian Helcelet continued his recovery from injury and did well both indoors and then in Lana to score 8025. He backed that up in Arona – despite not having been able to train since Lana – with 8058 but knew that his body didn’t have another quick decathlon in it, and he would just have to wait to see whether anyone would overtake him.

However, Jiri Sykora did not want to wait around. After a DNF in Lana, he won in Arona with a lifetime best of 8122, although was dismayed afterwards, hoping for more. He switched focus to Ratingen a week later but withdrew after Day 1. It seemed like it was over for Sykora, as he was the first man out with the top 24.

But then in a cruel twist of fate, the Czech Federation decided that Dolezal had not proved his form in 2021. So, the man that had originally been the highest performing of the Czech trio was taken out of contention, creating a space for the next in line in the rankings – his fellow countryman Jiri Sykora. Helcelet and Sykora would go to Tokyo. Dolezal would not.

And then, there is the decathlon cyborg that is Pawel Wiesiołek. He sat alongside Sykora and Britain’s Tim Duckworth just outside the rankings, having slipped out of the quota as others improved. His first decathlon of the year had been in Poland in May, where he’d withdrawn after the discus. He then made the podium in Götzis, with 8161.  In Arona, things went badly wrong as he fouled out in the discus. So, like Sykora, he hot footed it to Ratingen, but withdrew after the pole vault. The better part of four decathlons in a similar number of weeks. One more shot, at the Polish champs. Surely with all that effort in his legs, he couldn’t improve his score from Götzis, never mind add 146 points to his lifetime best of 8204 to qualify automatically.

And no, he didn’t qualify automatically, but oh my goodness, it was close. Pawel absolutely blazed through the Polish championships, annihilating his previous lifetime best with a score of 8333. Not quite the auto q, but good enough to overtake the few men in front of him, and with his 5th decathlon of the summer, secure his place at the Olympic Games.

Photo by Grzegorz Olkowski / European Athletics

HEPTATHLON

The reigning Olympic champion Nafi Thiam and the world champion Katarina Johnson Thompson confirmed their places a long time ago, but their circumstances ahead of the Doha World Championships have been reversed, this time KJT with the race against time on injury.  While Nafi strolled to a win to succeed Kat as European Indoor champion, neither has competed in more than a few events this year. So, their heptathlon form is unknown.

The 2017 world silver medallist Carolin Schafer, the 2016 European bronze medallist Ivona Dadic and 2019 world bronze medallist Verena Mayr (previously Preiner) bring their qualifying scores from their 2019 competitions to the Games, but none have yet shown that they’re in the sort of shape we’ve come to expect in previous years. Only Mayr has completed a heptathlon, her 6254 in Ratingen. So, their form is also unknown, and Carolin Schaefer was luckily excused from the requirement to prove form that was demanded of her training partner Kaul, suffering the aftereffects of her Covid vaccination.

The most significant dynamic of the year has therefore come from the American squad. Erica Bougard and Kendell Williams had already qualified automatically, and came to Götzis in May, alongside Bougard’s training partner Annie Kunz, ready to polish off some rust. But they had a far from vintage competition: Bougard DNF, Kunz halted in her tracks by three no-jumps in the long jump and their other team-mates Taliyah Brooks and Riley Cooks both dealing with their own challenges. Kendell Williams managed to recover a decent performance, posting a mark of 6383 and acknowledging just how hard it had been to get back into the groove.

The story could not have been more different come the US trials. The Williams and Bougard of previous years came bouncing out with big, big scores of 6683 and 6667 respectively. But the revelation was Annie. Finally, she managed to put together all her events into one single, sensational heptathlon: 6703 for the world lead. A massive 600-point PB, but in actual fact a cumulation of performances the level of which we had mostly seen individually, but never together in one place.

But before we leave the USA – and in particular the NCAAs – there was one athlete who was well and truly shafted by the rankings system.

And that was Tyra Gittens of Trinidad and Tobago. In her three heptathlons of the year, she scored 6274, 6418 and 6285 – her best mark 7th in the world in 2021, and her worst mark better than the qualifying scores of the athletes ranked 13th, 16th, 18th and 23rd in the final Olympic quota. But because her scores came in the NCAAs, her 6418 – just 2 points from automatic qualification, which only 11 women achieved – was deemed lower value than 6100s achieved elsewhere.

The prediction of which many warned had come to pass. Ironically, Tyra would have made it if the field size were 32, since she sat 25th in the rankings.  So, she was affected both by the rankings, and by the reduction in field size. Happily, Tyra had the opportunity to compete in the Games in the long jump, but the flawed approach to the rankings will no doubt penalise others in future too.

While the Americans didn’t fare too well in Götzis, one athlete did. Hungary’s Xenia Krizsan built on her European Indoor bronze to stretch away to win with a new Hungarian record of 6651, and – alongside the US trio – she is one of the athletes we know is in 6500+ shape.  Krizsan was already well places in the rankings and so simply turned that into an automatic spot, but there was one major name in the heptathlon world who – like Kevin Mayer – had no mark registered in order to even be considered for Olympic selection.

And that was the 2016 European champion Anouk Vetter from the Netherlands. I had the pleasure of interviewing her shortly after her splendid indoor season, and she talked about rediscovering the joy of her sport and taking little steps on the way to big results. But she was putting all her eggs in one basket for qualification – aiming to come out in Götzis and land the big mark.

With very little drama or cause for concern, she logged 6536 like she had never been away, and put herself alongside Krizsan, and later the Americans, as a real threat if the big two are not bringing their best game.

The final automatic qualifier is Yorgelis Rodriguez, also a little lacklustre in Götzis, but closer to her best in Havana a few weeks later with 6437.

Anouk is joined by her Dutch teammates Emma Oosterwegel and Nadine Broersen, and Nafi by her compatriot Noor Vidts, one of multiple Belgians who have had significant performances this year. Noor followed her silver medal in Torun with a strong performance to finish third in Arona in June with 6240.

In the rest of the field there are multiple wonderful stories. Maria Vicente’s national record of 6304 in Lana. Ninali Zheng’s 6358 and 6324 in Arona and Estonia (her partner is Karel Tilga) respectively in June. And Georgia Ellenwood’s epic Mittel-European adventure from Götzis to Ratingen: casting the die and rewarded with a lifetime best of 6314 and an Olympic slot alongside her training partner Pierce Lepage.

The field also includes Odile Ahouanwanhou from Benin, Ekaterina Voronina from Uzbekistan, Evelis Aguilar from Colombia, Maria Huntington from Finland, Vanessa Grimm from Germany and Marthe Koala of Burkina Faso. And just in the last few weeks before the Games begin, Adrianna Sułek won in Tallinn to ensure she boarded the plane to Tokyo as the European U23 champion.

Those are our Olympic multi-event fields: 23 in the decathlon, 24 in the heptathlon

THE MISSING EIGHT

The Olympic field has been reduced by eight to 24 from the 32 athletes in Rio, a decision which has united athletes in protest.  In March this year, Sweden’s Fredrik Samuelsson wrote to World Athletics, asking the governing body to commit to review the field sizes at major championships, and to talk to athletes about their concerns. The letter was supported by some 300 multieventers from around the world.

While it quickly became clear that no changes would be possible to the 2020/1 Olympic or 2022 world championships fields, there were signs that World Athletics would be open to Fredrik’s request to at least review – albeit with no guarantee of outcome – the current position.

Those came in the form of two significant developments, to which we can expect to return after the Olympics.  

The first was an approach from the WA Athletes Commission to Fredrik, to offer to meet with multieventers about the issues arising from the reduced fields, in order to help the Commission more fully understand the issues.

The second development was a similar approach from the WA Competition Commission – the body within WA that is responsible for the design of competitions – also with an invitation to meet with multieventers to discuss the issues, with an eye to the future.

Both those opportunities will be picked up after the Olympics, in partnership with the Athletics Association, so stay tuned.

But for now, here are the athletes who would have had the opportunity to compete in the 2020 Olympics if the fields sizes had remained at 32:

Decathlon: Tim Duckworth, Tim Nowak/ Matthias Brugger, Rik Taam, Fredrik Samuelsson, Keisuke Ushiro, Georni Jaramillo, Maksim Andraloits and Daniel Golubovic.   

Heptathlon: Tyra Gittens, Kate O’Connor, Holly Mills, Adrianna Rodriguez, Daryna Sloboda, Katerina Cachova, Anna Maiwald and Alina Shukh.

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