Preview: World U20 Championships, Nairobi

The Championships have been delayed for a year, there will be few people in the stadium to watch, some big names are missing, and we weren’t sure they would ultimately happen …but they’re finally here. No, not the Olympics, but the World U20 championships in Nairobi, Kenya.

For just a few days longer, and a year longer than expected, Olympic bronze medallist Ash Moloney will be the reigning World U20 decathlon champion, and 2019 European Indoor silver medallist Niamh Emerson the World U20 heptathlon champion. The current champions have had differing fortunes since their victories in Tampere in 2018; Emerson largely out with injury since Götzis in 2019, and Moloney embarking on a new challenge to see just how much food people will send an Olympic medallist stuck in quarantine in Brisbane.

Others from the field in Tampere 2018 have already made solid transitions into senior competition: bronze medallist Simon Ehammer from Switzerland, Andreas Bechmann from Germany, Kyle Garland from the US, and Ayden Owens of Puerto Rico have all been over 8000 in the senior event. In the heptathlon Anna Hall of the US, Claudia Conte of Spain, Adrianna Sułek of Poland and Annik Kälin of Switzerland have all made their mark too.

The delay from 2020 to 2021 has, however, been a blow to those athletes born in 2001 who have been timed out from their big shot at the world title, most notably Lucie Kienast of Germany, Markus Rooth of Norway, Sven Roosen and Sven Jansons of the Netherlands, and France’s Baptiste Thiery. All of them (other than Kienast, who is injured) competed at the European U23s in Tallinn last month, and Roosen’s silver medal and Rooth’s bronze will have been a decent consolation.  

Several countries have decided against sending teams to Nairobi, nervous about the ever-changing Covid situation. That includes Australia, UK, the Netherlands, US, Germany and Norway, all of whom have athletes who have qualified for the championships.  

So, the fields are small and, for once, not because they’ve been cut. However, these are no easy titles. If anyone wants to win a gold medal, then they will need to beat the outstanding world leads of 2021, seemingly head and shoulders above everyone else.

Who this week will add their names to the list of decathlon champions which includes Andrei Krauchanka, Kevin Mayer, Niklas Kaul and Moloney; and the list of heptathlon champions which includes Carolina Kluft, Carolin Schäfer, Dafne Schippers and Yorgelis Rodriguez?

Well, if you enjoyed the European U20s in Tallinn last month, then this is the opportunity to revisit the competition, since both fields are largely subsets of that line-up.

In the heptathlon, the one athlete who didn’t compete in Tallinn, 16-year-old Klara Koščak, is the youngest in the field. Earlier this year she set a Croatian national senior record, a feat that was matched in July by teammate Fran Bonifačič in Tallinn. It’s been quite a summer for Croatian multis.

European U20 champion Saga Vanninen (Photo: Raul Mee)

It is hard, though, to see beyond Finland’s Saga Vanninen, whose score of 6271 to win the European U20 title exceeded the score by her older teammate Maria Huntington at the Olympic Games a few weeks later. Among her competitors, Pippi Lotta Enok won’t have the benefit of the – small, but very noisy – Estonian home crowd to cheer her on, but she has a lot of strong performances – remember that high jump? – to draw from on this bigger stage and improve on her 5th place in Tallinn. 

Pippi Lotta Enok (Photo: Marko Mumm for EKJL)

Neea Käyhkö, also of Finland, was close behind Enok in 6th in Tallinn and Valeriya Mukhobrod of Ukraine, Szabina Szucs of Hungary and Atene Šliževicuite of Lithuania also reprise their rivalry in Kenya. Perhaps the most motivated of all will be Austria’s Sophie Kreiner, just a few months older than Koščak, who fell during the opening discipline of the heptathlon in Tallinn and did not continue in the competition. We will not, however, see a showdown between Vanninen and Norway’s Henriette Jaeger. Jaeger injured herself in Ratingen and did not make it to Tallinn, but even if fit Norway’s decision not to send a team to Nairobi would rule her out.

In the decathlon, like Vanninen, the new European U20 champion Jente Hauttekeete from Belgium is seeking to do the double and, like the Finn, has a commanding world lead coming into the competition. Earlier this year he indicated that his priority for the year was the World U20s, a statement which he repeated just hours before he won the European U20 title, broke his own national record, and set the 4th best score of all time.

“I think in Nairobi I will be at my best”, Jente said after winning the title in Tallinn.” I hope to score 8250.”

And what about Niklas Kaul’s world record of 8435? “I’d have to throw 70m in the javelin!”

Jente Hauttekeete (Photo: Raul Mee)

 We don’t have the silver and bronze medallists from Tallinn – Norway’s Sander Skotheim and France’s Teo Bastien – but we do have several athletes who would have been in contention for medals had they not suffered misfortune during the competition.

Czech Republic’s František Doubek was disqualified in the 400m on day 1 of the decathlon in Tallinn, and while he continued into the next day, his competition was essentially over.

“I have mixed feelings before the U20 worlds”, he told Decathletes of Europe this week.” I am in great shape, and I could do a really great decathlon over 8000. However, I’d like to make up for the competition in Tallinn where I accidentally stepped on the line and got disqualified. I hope I am going to be a solid opponent for Jente, and we’ll make it together to the end! I am little bit sad about Sander because he is not able to compete with us. Watch us and keep your fingers crossed!”

Frantisek Doubek (Photo: Raul Mee)

Also disqualified in the 400m, and subsequently injured in the pole vault, was Jose San Pastor of Spain, in his first year as a decathlete. His season’s best of 7197 does not tell the whole story: in Tallinn he scored over 300 points worth of personal bests during an extraordinary second day, but that was camouflaged by his zero points from the 400m. He should be much closer to 7500 or 7600 – and the medals – in Nairobi.

Jose San Pastor (Photo: Raul Mee)

Finland has a very strong combined events squad and, as in the heptathlon, they have two athletes in the decathlon field. Ville Toivonen’s 65m javelin in Tallinn moved him from 8th to 4th place and he finished 5th overall, while Aleksi Savolainen finished in 10th. Italy’s Alessandro Sion finished in 8th place in Tallinn, and Denmark’s Nikolaj Grønbech 11th.  Jef Misplon of Belgium was also disqualified in the infamous 400m at the Euro U20s, but he continued and took on pacing responsibilities in the 1500 – weeks before Cedric Dubler and Ash Moloney went viral in Tokyo! – to push Jente to his gold medal and national record.

And while Markus Rooth is rueing some bad late December birthday timing “I wish I was born 10 days later” he knows his all-time No.2 score of 8238 is on borrowed time, as is Ash Moloney’s 8190 from Tampere, the third best of all time.  

Thank you to everyone, at all stages, who contributed to making the World U20s a reality for the multieventers of future, and here’s to a safe and exciting championships!

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