Forget the Millrose Games, forget Karlsruhe. The action this weekend is in Clermont Ferrand, at the X-Athletics multievent meeting – the meeting with the best logo in the athletics!
Every year X-Athletics gets bigger and better, and this year it has achieved new status as part of the World Athletics Combined Events Tour. The line up in Clermont Ferrand on 29th and 30th January features all three of the medallists from the heptathlon in the 2021 European Indoors, and the gold and silver medallists from the heptathlon at the European U23 Championships.
THE ROAD TO BELGRADE
Many of the athletes competing this weekend will be aiming for one of the few places available at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade in March. Of the 12 places available, 5 will be reserved for the top 5 athletes outdoors as at 31 December 2021 (maximum 1 per country). One place is reserved for the winners of the 2021 Combined Events Challenge, Kai Kazmirek and Kendell Williams, if they wish to take it. There is no host country place – and Serbia would be unlikely to be able to field someone at the requisite level – but 1 athlete may be named at World Athletics’ discretion. The remaining 5 places will be filled by the 5 best athletes on the indoor lists as at 1 March 2022 – and those 5 places are the target for athletes competing over the next few weeks.
In response to Fredrik Samuelsson’s growing campaign on field sizes on behalf of combined eventers globally, European Athletics have indicated that they will increase the field size at the European Indoors in 2023. It remains to be seen whether World Athletics will deliver their commitment to engage with multieventers and discuss the scope to increase the field in world competitions.
So, for what are the athletes aiming? In men’s heptathlon the early season standard has been set by Artem Makarenko. He returned from his year out to focus on hurdles with a cracking 6115 earlier this week. His ANA status has been confirmed too, so he’s theoretically eligible. However, RusAF are only permitted a quote of 20 ANA individuals in total to compete across the World Indoors and Outdoors championships, European Championships and various other single discipline championships throughout the year. Makarenko will need to produce something special – perhaps closer to his 6320 from 2020 – to get into that top 20.
Behind Artem in the world lists is him is 19-year-old European U20 silver medallist Sander Skotheim, who posted an impressive 5965 last weekend in his first competition at the senior event. In 2021 he was only the second U20 in history to go over 6000 points behind world record holder Jente Hauttekeete. Hauttekeete had been due to make his senior debut in Clermont Ferrand this weekend, but a positive Covid test means the young Belgian will not participate and will instead aim for nationals in a few weeks’ time.
The women’s pentathlon has yet to warm up, but the best score coming into this weekend of action has been by Czech Dorota Skřvanová 4282, who is on the entry list for X-Athletics.
The 2021 edition of X-Athletics was won by Rik Taam from the Netherlands, who went onto finish 4th at the European Indoors. However the competition was actually a great tussle with Poland’s Pawel Wiesiołek. Pawel withdrew towards the end of the competition to protect a niggling injury but the European Indoor bronze medallist returns in 2022 to see if he can get on top of the podium and secure one of the huge and, if we’re honest, slightly scary X-Athletics medals.
While Hauttekeete won’t start, 2021 European Indoor silver medallist Jorge Ureña has been a late addition to the heptathlon field. After fantastic indoor seasons, both he and Wiesiolek then went on to set decathlon lifetime bests during the course of the year, and finish 9th and 12th respectively in Tokyo. Indoors, Ureña starred a heptathlon in Spain in December, but after a less than ideal result in the high jump (1.86) he didn’t continue into day 2. On paper, the Spaniard and the Pole will be seen as favourites, alongside Belarus’ Vitaly Zhuk if he can a) navigate the international Covid restrictions and b) land a good long jump.
However, this could be the season in which we see the potential of Simon Ehammer turn into some big marks. Following his breakthrough decathlon season in 2020, he was on track for an insane heptathlon last year in Magglingen. There was talk of him coming close to Kevin Mayer’s European record of 6479. But disaster struck with NH in the pole vault – as it did for him in Toruń – and we never saw what that big score might have been. After a long jump NM in his debut in Götzis, Ehammer focus on individual events for the remainder of the year and won long jump gold at the European U23s. He is well capable of taking on Ureña, Wiesiołek and Zhuk at their best, and equally capable of holding his own with world record holder Kevin Mayer in the first 5 events of a heptathlon.
Mayer will be making a guest appearance over the weekend, but it will confine to the long jump, shot and pole vault. He already has his place at the World Indoors, so has no need to chase a mark in the full heptathlon. Instead, he’s preparing to chase the world record with Damian Warner in Belgrade. How lucky we are to have two of the greatest multieventers of all time compete at their peak! Mayer’s Belgian training partner Benjamin Hougardy, who finished third at the competition last year, will be starting in the full 7 events this weekend.
Alongside Ehammer, the Swiss team includes Andri Oberholzer, Finley Gaio, Matthias Steinmann and Nino Portmann. Oberholzer set a Swiss national record of 5940 in Magglingen last year, although Ehammer claimed it a few days later with his 6092 in Frankfurt. Don’t be surprised if Finley Gaio comes out best in the hurdles. He qualified for the event in the European indoors in 2021 and was second only to Damian Warner at the longer hurdles race in Götzis in 2021. Gaio’s indoor best of 5741 from 2019 is due serious revision, given his improvement since that mark was set.
Dario Dester had a dream indoor season in 2021, as the first Italian man to score over 6000 points. The new national record holder then went onto compete at the European Indoors and then the European U23s, where he just missed the medals in 4th.
We had been due to see how the Czech pair of Ondrej Kopecky and Marek Lukas are faring in their first few months under the coaching direction of decathlon legend Roman Sebrle, but both have minor injuries and have withdrawn from the competition.
As is always the case in Clermont-Ferrand, there will be a substantial domestic field, and among them there are a few interesting athletes to watch. Basile Rolnin is one. A breakthrough indoor season in 2019 led to him performing extremely well in Glasgow European Indoors (before succumbing to injury in day 2) and a heroic qualification for Doha in Ratingen. But he hasn’t managed to put together a sequence of competitions since then without incurring injury. There is a big score to come, sometime, from Rolnin.
Teo Bastien won the bronze medal in the European U20s behind Hauttekeete and Skotheim, and the clues to his achievements in 2021 were rooted in some impressive performances during the 2021 indoor season. Valentin Charles is worth watching as he returns to heptathlon, and of course it wouldn’t be X-Athletics without Jeremy Lelievre. Ruben Gado has moved south to Montpellier to train, but after his return to form outdoors in 2021, it would be a treat if he returns to his old home in Clermont-Ferrand during his indoor season.
Nic Gerome brings the French-British interest, and Rafał Horbowicz is the second Pole in the field.
We’ll see if Noor Vidts manages to escape the Covid woes of the Belgian team to make it to Clermont Ferrand. The European Indoor silver medallist and Olympic 4th placer had a monster year in 2021, and that all started off with a win in Clermont Ferrand. If she makes it to France, she would start as favourite.
But otherwise, attention in the pentathlon field is likely to be on European U23 champion Adrianna Sułek, and 2019 European U20 champion Maria Vicente. Both athletes participated in the Euro Indoors in 2021, but more significantly both went onto qualify for the Olympics. Vicente set a national heptathlon record when winning Multistars last year, and she’s already been in great form in 2022 with PBs of 6.70 in the long jump and over 60m and 200m.
But there are two strong Spanish athletes in the pentathlon, and the second is Claudia Conte. Her growth in confidence between Arona and Tallinn – where she won silver behind Sułek – during the summer of 2021 was exciting to watch. Sułek’s teammate Paulina Ligarska finished third at the X-Athletics competition in 2021 and she returns in 2022.
The athlete flying under the radar is World bronze medallist Verena Mayr. Her year in 2019 was superb, breaking Ivona Dadic’s heptathlon record and joining KJT and Nafi Thiam on the podium in Doha. While she made it to the Olympics last year, scoring a respectable 6310 in 11th, her injury troubles have kept her out of contention for medals. Let’s see how she fares in 2022.
While she seems to have been around for a long time, Swede Bianca Salming is still only 23, and in 2020 she finally had her first plus 6000+ heptathlon, followed up by 6101 in 2021. She set her pentathlon lifetime best of 4422 shortly before Covid hit.
Among the usual French delegation – including Esther Turpin, Cassandre Aguessy-Thomas and Annaelle Nyabeu Djapa – is Celia Perron, who found herself qualifying for Toruń last year with her performance of 4434. She was injured later in the year, but here’s hoping she can replicate or improve on her great indoor season of 2021. The field includes Louise Maraval, who improved her heptathlon significantly outdoors to 5726, and her current pentathlon best of 3937 will likely also soon be improved. However, the top scoring French woman in 2022 outdoors (and the only one over 6000) is also competing this weekend – Leonie Cambours, who scored a superb 6192 in Montpelier.
Carmen Ramos and Andrea Medina join Vicente and Conte from the Spanish team; Marijke Esselink, Sophia Mulder and Michele Oud bring the Dutch challenge; and Sveva Gerevini from Italy makes up the international field.