Thu. Aug 11th, 2022

After a gap of 2 years and 9 months we’re back at a World Championships, this time at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. The decathlon in Doha in 2019 was characterised by a series of unfortunate incidents, slowly chipping away the field until only 19 men finished. That also seems to be happening in 2022 in the heptathlon, except the dropouts are coming before the competition even starts.

Over and above the usual injury challenges, visas have been a problem (preventing Odile Ahouanwanhou from competing) and of course the uncertainty of how the rankings will shake out. Rather than wait for a last-minute invitation, some athletes have cut their losses and decided to focus on other goals, whether that be preparation for the European Championships, the Commonwealth Games or the next World Championships just around the corner in 2023.

HEPTATHLON

At the time of writing, the heptathlon field has been reduced to 15, but let’s talk about the athletes who are there, rather than those who are not.

THE BENELUX QUEENS

The current queens of heptathlon are the athletes of the Low Countries. Between them, Nafi Thiam and Noor Vidts of Belgium, and Anouk Vetter and Emma Oosterwegel of the Netherlands hold the Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals, and the world and European indoor titles. So far this year only Vetter and Oosterwegel has done a full heptathlon, with the Belgians just dabbling at some individual events. Vetter’s heptathlon was a cracker though, winning Götzis and breaking her own Dutch national record with 6693. Oosterwegel was a more modest 6265 in fifth place. So, with Thiam in unknown form over seven events, Vetter starts as the favourite.

THE CLASS OF 2021

Behind the big names, Switzerland’s Annik Kalin and Poland’s Adrianna Sułek are leading a new class of heptathletes out of the U20 and U23 age groups. Sułek is the 2021 European U23 champion, Claudia Conte the 2021 silver medallist, and Sophie Weissenberg the 2019 silver medallist. Kalin, the 2019 European U20 bronze medallist, won Multistars in April in a Swiss record of 6398, her back problems hopefully now behind her. A week later, Weissenberg found her form to win in Ratingen, just 20 points short of her PB of 6273 set in Götzis in 2019.

While Adrianna Sułek’s PB (6429) from her second place in Götzis this year might be a few hundred points behind the big names, she makes up for that gap in sheer tenacity. If you invest time in following Adrianna, you won’t be disappointed, and you’ll certainly be entertained. Every cm or fraction of a second improvement seems to unlock another level of determination in the Pole. In the space of a single event she can turn tears of despondency into the joy of a lifetime best. This season Adrianna has been chipping away at a range of events, most notably her high jump and shot which she’s improved by 6cm and 60cm+ respectively, over and above her overall heptathlon improvement.

A LONG ROAD FOR KJT

The defending champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has made it to Oregon, although that was by no means a given. Like her fellow world champion Niklas Kaul of Germany, she suffered an injury midway through the final event of the first day at the Olympics and she is on a long road back to form. It’s therefore important to judge her low-key competitions in Belgrade and Götzis as milestones in that recovery, rather than measure them against her performances of 2018 indoors and 2019 outdoors. On that form she would be unlikely to challenge the Benelux athletes, but she now has a further two months of work behind, albeit with another change of coach (moving from Petros Kyprianou in Florida to Aston Moore in the UK).

EXPERIENCED HANDS, FRESH US FACES

The US heptathlon team is a combination of experienced hands and fresh faces competing in their first global championships. The experience is in the shape of Kendell Williams: slick, polished and consistent. With a wildcard entry from finishing top in the 2021 WA Combined Events tour, she didn’t need a big early season score, did what was required to secure selection at the US trials, and withdrew from the final two events as a precaution in Götzis.

With the potential for four places on the US team, and the big scorers Erica Bougard and Annie Kunz both out of the picture for various reasons, opportunity opened up for others to make the squad. The most confident performance was from Anna Hall, who held the world lead in both pentathlon and heptathlon at various points in the year. She was unfortunate to miss out on selection for the World Indoors, given the inflexibility of US selection policy for college athletes. Conscious that a sub-6420 score would leave her to the mercy of the rankings, she left nothing to chance, winning the US trials in a lifetime best and auto-qualifier of 6458.

The flip side of the US selection policy is that it is really clear what you need to do to make the team– finish in the top three and secure an appropriate qualification performance.

The second and third athletes at the US trials were Ashtin Zamzow-Mahler and Michelle Atherley. Neither had reached the automatic standard of 6420, but both were just outside the top 24 for qualification, with Chari Hawkins (who finished fourth at trials) not too far behind them. The US combined events trials were held early to give athletes time to recover, but if Zamzow-Mahler and Atherley wanted to be sure of a spot, they would need to go again.

Zamzow-Mahler went to Arona to hunt out a bigger score – and collect some good rankings points – but a neck spasm in the high jump ruled her out of the competition, which was won by Hawkins.

She and Atherley then went to the NACAC championships in Ottawa, also a generous source of points. While Ashtin had to scratch, Atherley won the NACAC heptathlon easily and ended up the top of the three in the rankings, and high enough to qualify for Oregon.

Although she qualified fairly and squarely via rankings, Atherley is listed as securing a designated spot as winner of NACAC. That raises an issue about the world’s strongest heptathlon nation being able to use a route intended to promote diversity of participation – there were only USA and Canadian athletes in the NACAC field, and neither nation is in need of help to ensure representation on a world stage.

As the qualification period closed and teams named their fields, Zamzow-Mahler made the cut too, much to her surprise. In 2021 Mahler and her husband Wolf Mahler (a decathlete turned 400m hurdler) filmed a YouTube series about their road to Eugene for the US trials, including a very high maintenance and melodramatic mini-Winnebago. While this version might have been less eventful, Zamzow-Mahler finally achieved her goal of making a global champs.

The final two athletes making up the field of 15 are Paulina Ligarska and Xenia Krizsan. Ligarska has stepped up significantly this year both indoors and out, and she was unlucky to miss qualification for the World Indoors by just a few days. But her PB of 6241 to finish second behind Sułek at the Polish championships was enough to give her her first World championships place. And finally, the 2021 Götzis winner Krizsan has had a low-key season so far, not competing outside Hungary and yet to do a full heptathlon.

Hayward Field (Photo: Rei Yamazaki for Unsplash)

DECATHLON

The gold, silver and bronze decathlon medallists from Doha 2019 return, but their fortunes have all taken different turns since the celebrations in the small hours of the fourth of October 2019.

The Doha gold medallist Niklas Kaul makes it to Oregon by way of his wildcard as defending champion, which is just as well, because 2021 was not kind to the German. After returning in decent form from the elbow surgery he elected to do to fix an old problem, his Olympic decathlon came to an emotional end in the 400m.

In Götzis in May 2022, Kaul scored 8303 and secured the 8100-point standard for the European Championships in Munich, a home competition of great importance to the German athletes. Kaul is always better in July than he is in May, as he demonstrated when winning the European U23s in Gavle in 2019, adding over 200 points between the two competitions.

The silver medallist Maicel Uibo has also had a challenging few years and found himself chasing the auto-qualifying standard in Götzis and at the Estonian champs. It looked like he would miss out on Oregon, even after he managed to squeak into the top 24 via the rankings, because he was the fourth Estonian to do so. But he finally a little luck – the selectors decided to give him the place rather than the auto-qualified Karel Tilga.

A SHORT HISTORY OF WARNER V MAYER

For the 2019 bronze medallist Damian Warner of Canada, it’s been a quite different tale. Since Doha he’s collected another two Götzis titles, another two decathlon world bests (albeit then losing one of them to Simon Ehammer), landed the fifth and sixth best scores of all time, broken 9000 points, won a world indoor title and took the biggest title of all when he became Olympic champion in Tokyo. But in 2022, he’s been in the unusual position of going into the world championships not holding the world lead, albeit that the world leader Garrett Scantling will not take part in the competition.

The last time a World Championships decathlon field included the defending World Champion, the Olympic Champion and the World record holder was in 2015. That was thanks to the man who held all of those honours at the time, the one-man decathlon Holy Trinity Ashton Eaton.

While Kaul would be in the mix for a decathlon topping out at 8600, he’s not yet stepped up to the 8800+ space where we expect to find Warner and the world record holder Kevin Mayer. And neither have we seen Damian Warner and Kevin Mayer go for it against each other at their best in a championships decathlon.

In 2017 when Mayer won the World title in London, Warner was caught by the norovirus outbreak made famous by Isaac Makwala.

In 2018, Mayer’s and Warner’s paths diverged and they didn’t meet outdoors. Both had disasters in their respective major championships – Mayer with three fouls in the long jump in the Berlin European Championships and Warner no-heighting in the pole vault in the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast. Those performances both inspired revenge PBs, though, Mayer going onto break the world record in Talence, while Warner broke the Canadian record shortly afterwards in Götzis.

In 2019, Mayer’s injuries sabotaged his world championships in Doha and he retired tearfully, while Warner’s decathlon just didn’t come together and he had to settle for bronze.

And in 2021, Mayer was hindered by injury which kept him at a mere 8726, while Warner was supreme in 9000+ form. It was hardly a fair battle.

So far in 2022 Warner has scored 8797 in Götzis, but his frustration that it wasn’t more was clear. Mayer has been characteristically enigmatic, allowing us to see only snatches of his form, a little pole vault, a little long jump, a little shot put. He is giving no hint that he will not be in a position to lace ten elements together to match Warner, but experience tells us that it is always best to wait and see with Kevin.

To help gauge how things might unfold, there are two key points in the competition that will tell us how things are going between Mayer and Warner.

The first is the high jump on Day 1, since it will reveal any injuries or problems in technique. It’s not either man’s best event, but both would want to be over 2.00m. The second checkpoint will be at the pole vault, where Mayer is significantly stronger than Warner.

Remember that Mayer is equally good on Day 1 and Day 2 – his world record was famously the same points on both days – but Warner’s day 1 is his stronger day; indeed his first day score of 4743 in Götzis in 2021 was the highest in history. So, the pole vault is where Mayer can make up ground on Warner…or stretch away from him.

AIMING FOR 8400+

Behind Warner and Mayer, and alongside Kaul, there is an army of men who are capable of 8500 points: Olympic bronze medallist Ash Moloney, Commonwealth champion Lindon Victor, Commonwealth silver medallist Pierce LePage and the best combined jumper in decathlon history, Zach Ziemek of USA.

In the 8300-8400 space we find the 2017 World bronze medallist Kai Kazmirek, his performances a little uninspired in 2021, but with a very promising 8272 in Götzis this year, and he believes 8400 is possible. Janek Õiglane will always find a hard way to do something, and yet again he delivered one of the most inspired performances of the year. He’s been languishing with a foot injury, among other things, for the last few years, but scored a lifetime best of 8405 at the Tennessee relays. Johannes Erm has yet to return to his 8400+ form of 2019 where he and Kaul duelled at the U23s in Gavle, but he is able to churn out 8100-8200 scores on a regular basis, and he just needs one lucky break to do something big. His fellow NCAA competitor Leo Neugebauer was one of multiple Germans to make it over 8000 for the first time this year, but Neugebauer did the big one, scoring 8362 at the NCAAs.

BACK IN THE GAME

Germany is allowed to bring four athletes, and after lots of problems in 2021, Tim Nowak is back in the game and back in a World Championships team, to try and improve on his 10th place from 2019. Steven Bastien had a late call up to the US team, a little down from his blistering breakthrough of 2021, but maintaining his place at the highest level of competition.

Like the Germans, US and Estonians, the Australians are sending a full team of decathletes. Cedric Dubler’s qualification for major championships is always a plucky tale of determination and courage (even more so year after a change of coach), but Golubovic has made the team despite the world rankings system doing its best to keep him off it. His scores of 8223 and 8336 – a major step up in performance for him – only rank him 24th, and while it was enough to make the field, he is several places behind athletes who have achieved performances some 200 points lower.

If the Australian decathlon coaching scene has seen a little turbulence, it’s nothing compared to the Czech situation. Both Josef Karas and Jaroslav Baba stepped back from coaching decathlon in 2021, with athletes searching for new options. Roman Šebrle stepped into the mix, with many sceptical about how well his famous notebooks would serve him in supporting the new generation.

Well, it’s worked brilliantly for Ondřej Kopecký, who not only cracked 8000 for the first time this year, but almost scored an outright qualifier of 8310. Jiri Sýkora continues his pattern of squeezing into one of the final places in major championships, although the Europeans might be his big opportunity later in the year.

There’s no Simon Ehammer in the decathlon, but he did compete in the long jump – and won bronze! And his 8.45m decathlon world best from Götzis remains the world lead.

“I’m a little sad that I don’t start in the Worlds in the decathlon because of the Europeans,” he told Decathletes of Europe after winning his medal “but I will watch the whole competition, I will cheer for the results, and next year I will be with the boys at the Worlds in the decathlon!”

THE FIRST-TIMERS

Andy Preciado of Ecuador and Ken Mullings of the Bahamas benefit from the protected places in the field – albeit it would be better if those places were in a roomier field of 32 – Preciado (PB 8004) as the South American champion and Bahamian Mullings (PB 7734) as the NACAC champion. The system on this occasion has done its job by giving Ecuador and Bahamas exposure on the world stage to inspire young athletes at home.

One young athlete who might not have expected to find himself on that world stage so soon is Norway’s Sander Skotheim. For him, 2021 was a year in which he repeatedly just missed out.

He scored the second best U20 heptathlon of all time in February 2021, but Jente Hauttekeete of Belgium was just ahead of him with the world record (albeit they’ll likely both be retired before it’s ratified). Skotheim was also second at the European U20s in Tallinn, again just losing out again to Hauttekeete.

Norway didn’t send a team to the World U20s in Nairobi, so Skotheim missed his chance, watching Czech Frantisek Doubek take gold and Hauttekeete silver. The 20-year-old even broke Martin Roe’s national record in Grosseto in April this year, scoring 8298, only to lose it immediately to Markus Rooth finishing a few seconds behind him.

But finally, Skotheim has his moment – after adding 8126 at the national championships to his score from Grosseto, he moved up the rankings and into the field for Eugene. Don’t be surprised if he breaks Rooth’s record of 8307 – and look out for him sparring with Uibo and Kyle Garland come the high jump.

And that takes us onto the best bit of this World Championships decathlon. We finally, finally get to see Ayden Owens-Delerme of Puerto Rico and Kyle Garland of the USA at a major championships. Owens was penalised by the rankings system in 2021, and Garland was up against older and more experienced competition for the US team. But in 2022, that all changed, with both men putting their elite status beyond doubt.

Owens scored 8528 at the Mt Sac Relays and followed that up with 8457 to win the NCAA championships. And Garland, well – he improved his lifetime best by over 500 points in one season when he scored 8720 to finish second at the US trials. There is every possibility that Owens-Delerme and Garland could bring to their debut world championships what Niklas Kaul brought to his in 2019.