Sat. May 28th, 2022

Pretty much every preview you will read of the combined events competitions at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade this weekend will focus on the Olympic and World champions in the fields. We’ll do that too, but first we’re going to focus on a young athlete who will be competing while war rages in her homeland.

Yuliya Loban is part of a small Ukrainian delegation which has made it to Belgrade. That there is any Ukrainian team here at all is a huge achievement. Sport is never easy, but it must be considerably more difficult to focus on preparation and performance while teammates, family and friends are all in danger at home. Twenty-one-year-old Yuliya explained to Decathletes of Europe why it is important that she, and the Ukrainian team, is in Belgrade.

“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!”

PENTATHLON

Yuliya Loban in Tallinn 2022 (Photo: Marko Mumm for EKJL)

Yuliya qualified for the competition thanks to her performance in Tallinn in February, where she scored a lifetime best of 4482 and finished third behind Adrianna Sułek of Poland and Holly Mills of Great Britain. Loban competed in the European U23 championships last year, and the entire podium from the competition is in Belgrade – the gold and bronze medallists Sułek and Mills, plus silver medallist Claudia Conte from Spain, and Leonie Cambours of France. The importance of the age groups championships as a feeder event for major championships is clear.

Of this group, Sułek and Mills were closely matched in Tallinn in February, waiting for the final result before they knew who had won – Sułek 4598 to Mills’ 4597. Sułek briefly relinquished her world lead to Anna Hall’s 4618 (who wasn’t picked due to US selection criteria) but then recovered it with a massive PB of 4756 at the Polish championships. Adrianna was already qualified, but her teammate Paulina Ligarska was unfortunate, leaping into 4th in the on the world lists with 4593 after the qualifying deadline had passed.  Belgrade will be Sułek’s fourth pentathlon of the season. That’s not unusual for her – she won her European U23 gold just a few weeks before the Olympics last year.

Holly Mills, Adrianna Sulek and Claudia Conte (Photo: Marko Mumm for EKJL)

Mills has focused on individual events after posting her big score in Tallinn, and she won the silver medal in the hurdles at the British championships a few weeks ago. Cambours enjoyed a big improvement outdoors during the 2021 season, and also improved her indoor performance in Clermont Ferrand this year to 4457. Conte finished second at the Spanish championships in 4429 behind Maria Vicente (who set a Spanish national record of 4582 in the process), but Vicente’s injury in the long jump at a meeting in Madrid ruled her out of the season.

Although she has not competed in a pentathlon this year (with Covid-related withdrawal just before she was due to make her season’s debut at X-Athletics in January), Noor Vidts of Belgium comes to the championships after a spectacular indoor and outdoor season in 2021. She won European indoor silver in Torun in 2021 with 4791 and was just short of the Olympic podium too. After Olympic champion Nafi Thiam indicated she would not take up her place, Noor became eligible. She has focused on individual events so far in 2022 – setting PBs in all of them.

Chari Hawkins won the US trials and was selected over the world leader at the time, Anna Hall. While disappointing for the college athlete, Chari rises to the occasion and this will be her second world championships, after competing in Doha in 2019. Since Doha Hawkins has had a multitude of injury problems but her PB performance of 4492 in Spokane a few weeks ago was very promising. As more and more of the athletes qualified via the 2021 world lists route chose not to compete, more athletes who thought they had missed their chance due to the restricted field size came into contention. Sarah Lagger’s 4468 to win the Austrian champs was good enough to qualify. Sveva Gerevini has improved the Italian national record twice this season, most recently to 4451 and she’s been rewarded with inclusion in the field.

Noor’s silver in Torun in 2021 (Photo: European Athletics)

However, the surprise of the season has undoubtedly been Dorota Skřivanová. Dorota held the early world lead of 4282 before the season really got going, a small PB, and one might have assumed that that would be her best for the year. But she delivered a huge improvement to score 4560 at the Czech championships, and she comes into the championships 6th on the world list.

Watching as the next generation come through – and both not quite believing that they are now the athletes to whom their competitors look up – are training partners Kendell Williams and Katarina Johnson Thompson.

Kendell tends to use her first combined event of the season to regain the feeling for the event, and with qualification already confirmed through her victory in the World Athletics Combined Events Challenge for 2021, she could relax at the US champs, where she finished second to Hawkins with 4399 (her best is 4703). You can read more about how she’s preparing here. And the 12th place, the wildcard, goes to the reigning indoor and outdoor World champion Katarina Johnson Thompson. There have been few clues as to her form – but since she’s here, she will be competitive. Her personal best is, of course, 5000 points.

A Ukrainian, a Pole, two Brits, one French, one Spaniard, one Czech, two US, a Belgian, an Austrian and an Italian.

The pentathlon takes place on Friday 18 March.

HEPTATHLON

While the pentathlon field has been constructed primarily from the 2021-2022 indoor lists, the heptathlon field is a much more intriguing affair. The field is balanced with six from 2021 and six from 2021-2022. So, what do we know?

We know Garrett Scantling from USA is in phenomenal form, as he rocketed to the top of the world standings a few weeks ago. His indoor best, during his pre-Covid comeback season, had been 6209 at the US national championships in early 2020, and he improved that to 6382 at the US champs this year. He has had a steady progression over the last year, taking his indoor form outdoors and ultimately to 4th place at the Olympic Games.

We know Simon Ehammer from Switzerland is in superb form, posting 6285 in Clermont Ferrand, jumping a heptathlon world best of 8.26m and following that up with 8.22m a few weeks later. He was eligible for selection in three events for Belgrade: the heptathlon, the long jump and the hurdles. Ehammer’s breakthrough year was 2020, as Switzerland was able to put on a few competitions during the Covid “dead” season. He logged stunning performance after performance and came into 2021 ready to transfer his improvement into championships. But his progress was curtailed, in part by injury, and in part by a series of no-marks in PV (Swiss champs and Euro Indoors) and long jump (Götzis). He made do with gold at the long jump at the European U23s in July 2021. But so far this year he’s improved on his form of 2020 and managed to regain his confidence in the vault – a clean championships slate awaits.

We know that Hans Christian Hausenberg from Estonia is in excellent form. He took time out from the multis in 2021, a decision made on the spot as he was poised to log a big score in Tallinn in February 2021. But he picked up where he left off, with a huge 340-point PB of 6143 exactly a year later. Hausenberg would be the star long-jumper in the field (his best is 7.92) if he didn’t have the misfortune to be lining up against Ehammer and Damian Warner, and he is also one of the best combined event vaulters in the world (5.30m).

Hans Christian Hausenberg (Photo: Marko Mumm for EKJL)

We know that Andri Oberholzer of Switzerland and Dario Dester of Italy are in great form. Oberholzer retained his Swiss indoor title this year, but his 2022 performance was a step up from his national record in 2021 (the competition in which Ehammer no heighted), and he joined the 6000+ club in Magglingen with 6041. Andri has set or equalled his PB in all seven of his heptathlon events this season, as well as the heptathlon itself. Dario Dester was the first Italian man over 6000 points this time last year, and he came within just 40 points of his national record when he scored 6038 at the Italian championships in 2022.

For a while the wildcard seemed to be headed to South America, and possibly Andy Preciado of Ecuador. Andy has never competed indoors, but broke 8000 points for the first time when winning the South American championships last year in 8004 points. In the end, the wildcard went to multiple European Indoor medallist, Jorge Ureña. Jorge has not been in the form that won him those medals – he hasn’t broken 6000 this year, and his season appeared to be done after his 5955 at the Spanish championships, which places him 19th on the 2022 world lists. But an indoor championships is always better with Ureña on the start list.

Swiss team in Belgrade: L-R Matthias Steinman (on media duty with Swiss Track Check), Andri Oberholzer, Simon Ehammer, Finley Gaio (60mh) (Photo: Gabby Pieraccini)

In the meantime, the best way for World Athletics to avoid scrambling to try and fit inclusivity places, defending champions, strong performers and host country athletes into a field of 12 – and to ensure there’s transparency on the decisions about who gets to compete for rankings points that will boost qualification for subsequent championships – would be to increase the field to at least 16, as over 300 combined event athletes asked the governing body to do almost exactly a year ago.

Back to the heptathlon, and then there’s the six athletes who qualified based on their 2021 form. Analysis of what they might be in a position to do involves a little more speculation.

The Olympic champion, Damian Warner of Canada is playing down his chances but, well – he’s Damian, isn’t he? Damian’s off days are better than most other people’s good days. However, with Scantling and Ehammer in the form they’re in, we need some quality Damian if he wants gold. And quality Damian has been in evidence this year, as he ran 7.63 for the hurdles a few weeks ago – almost a tenth of a second faster than anyone else in the field has ever run – and threw a solid 14.90m shot. Damian’s PB is actually only 6343 – less than Scantling’s – set when he won silver in Birmingham four years ago. However, bear in mind that Warner does not compete in this event very often, and in Birmingham his long jump was a mere 7.39m.

Steven Bastien of the USA had a breakthrough year in 2021. He posted a modest 8008 decathlon in April which was quite in keeping with his standard at the time – his PB was 8023. Then a completely different Bastien turned up to the US champs. The Bastien who scored 8485 and went to the Olympics. Some deft manoeuvring by the US federation to reject Scantling’s 2021 invitation and generate a Top 5 2022 invitation meant that Bastien moved into contention via his 2021 score. His season’s bests so far in 2022 are commensurate with his best performances, but don’t put too much stock in his modest PB of 5810. That hails from a different time and he should expect to be over 6000 – if his poles arrive.

Karel Tilga of Estonia trained alongside Garrett Scantling at the University of Georgia until the changes triggered by coach Petros Kyprianou’s departure after the NCAAS last summer. While Scantling went to Florida with Williams and KJT, Tilga returned to Estonia and is currently being coached by another former Georgia Dawg, the now-retired (*checks notes – yes still retired*) Karl Robert Saluri. Tilga won the 2021 NCAA indoor and outdoor titles (the latter with an Olympic qualifying score) and he beat Scantling at the annual Spec Towns invitational in April last year, although in the end injury curtailed his Olympic performance. Tilga has been tuning up for Belgrade with teammate Hans Christian Hausenberg in Estonia – look out for their very different appearances, demonstrating wonderfully how there are many different ways to excel at combined events.

Lindon Victor of Grenada has been pretty quiet since the Olympics and was a surprise to many when he took up his place, especially since his strongest events are the long throws of the decathlon. He has done a few events indoors this season, but not a heptathlon, so he brings his PB of 5976 to the championships. Kai Kazmirek has similarly been low key, saving the Germans’ blushes as the only athlete on the combined events teams thanks to his win in the 2021 WA Combined Events challenge. Fellow Germans Leo Neugebauer and Marcel Meyer both scored over 6000 this year and would have both qualified had the profile of the field between 2021 and 2022 qualifiers been more like the women’s. They sit 6th and 12th in the world. However, Neugebauer didn’t participate given his US college commitments, as was the case for NCAA champion and runner up Ayden Owens and Kyle Garland who currently sit 3rd and 5th in the world.

And finally, Ash Moloney, perhaps the most eagerly anticipated debut of any combined events championships, anywhere. Moloney has never competed indoors. The indoor season coincides with the outdoor season in the Southern Hemisphere, and only Australian athletes at US colleges tend to compete indoors.  Moloney’s best events are the 100m and 400m, and while the 400m won’t be of much use indoors, his raw speed over 100m will. He can run 10.34s, second only to Warner. Moloney improved the outdoor versions of all the relevant heptathlon events in his 2020-21 season, which bodes well for his first outing indoors.

So how might the competition unfold? Expect Warner, Ehammer, Hausenberg and Moloney to be out front after the 60m, and Warner and Ehammer to stretch further – perhaps also with Hausenberg – after the long jump. Warner and Ehammer are both 15m throwers at their best, but they ain’t Garrett Scantling or Karel Tilga, who can dump a shot over 16m at their best, as can Lindon Victor. Scantling, Tilga and Victor should also come into play much more in the high jump, as should Moloney, where they edge Warner and Ehammer. Urena often makes his move in the high jump, but he hasn’t been over 2m this year.  An in-form Steven Bastien could gate-crash the Day 1 party at any point.

Come day 2, Warner and Ehammer should again dominate the hurdles with Scantling close but – and this will be on my gravestone – the pole vault will be critical. Warner has never been over 5m, and Ehammer’s best is only 5.10. The vault is, however, Scantling’s best event and he and Hans Christian Hausenberg – with Oberholzer not far behind – should shine in the 6th event. Wherever things stand, if it comes down to an eyeballs out 1000m, the people to watch – or desperately hang onto – are Tilga and Bastien who are 15 seconds faster than Ehammer and Hausenberg. Moloney could surprise us all at any time.

Two Estonians, two Swiss, two US, one German, one Italian, one Spaniard, one Grenadian, one Canadian and one Australian.

The heptathlon takes places on Friday 18th March and Saturday 19th March.