Preview Hengelo, the Netherlands

Eaton is happy to be in Hengelo on the European circuit – IAAF World Challenge

US all-round talent Ashton Eaton in his debut 400m hurdles race (Kirby Lee)US all-round talent Ashton Eaton in his debut 400m hurdles race (Kirby Lee) © Copyright

“It’s been a dream for several years now and I’m glad to be on the European circuit for a couple of races,” said Ashton Eaton after arriving in the Netherlands this week for the AA-Drink FBK Games, an IAAF World Challenge meeting in Hengelo on Sunday (8).

The world and Olympic champion is taking a break from the decathlon this summer and is instead concentrating on the 400m hurdles.

After arriving from Toronto, where he had the chance to meet his wife Brianne Theisen Eaton – who had just returned from Götzis where she finished second in the heptathlon last weekend – Eaton brought some news.

“I’m enjoying this season so much without the combined events that I’ve given up my plan to quit after the World Championships in London in 2017,” Eaton said. “If I take another sabbatical after that tournament, I think I can continue until 2020.”

The break from combined events, after winning gold in the heptathlon at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in March, brought new motivation to the US all-rounder.

“Me and my coach Harry Mara think it will improve my speed and endurance and that I will benefit from this experience in the combined events next year,” said Eaton. “At this point I can say: yes, it’s possible to break my world record of 9039 points. Last year I was mentally so tired, that I wouldn’t have predicted that.”

Eaton said that doing the 400m hurdles was just an opportunity for “some fun”. How much fun is it to run the 400m hurdles faster than 50 seconds, as he did in San Marcos last week when he improved his PB to 49.69?

“I know many athletes say that it hurts. For me it’s more a rather slow race over 400 metres, about four seconds slower than my PB on the flat,” he said. “Maybe I don’t feel the pain, because I really have to focus on counting my strides between the hurdles.

“I’ve been looking at videos of Michael Tinsley’s races and I try to copy his strategy. Besides that, my coach and I always use hurdles in training. I’m a rather aggressive runner and it helps me to run faster when I’m attacking them.”

In Hengelo he also will have to attack – among others – two-time world silver medallist Javier Culson and 2011 world bronze medallist LJ van Zyl, both of whom have run faster than 49 seconds this summer. But Eaton likes the challenge. “Like in the decathlon, I’m always looking at the other contenders.”

Eaton is one of four Olympic champions set to compete in the FBK-Stadium this Sunday. One of the others is pole vault world record-holder Renaud Lavillenie, who will be making his first appearance in the Netherlands.

“My goal is to jump at least 5.90m, as I want to break the stadium record,” said the Frenchman, who earlier this year broke the world record with his indoor 6.16m clearance in Donetsk. This summer he has already vaulted 5.92m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai.

Among his contenders is Rens Blom, the 2005 world champion. The 37-year-old Dutchman quit the sport and worked as a coach in his discipline for a couple of years, but returned to the pole vault. The 2014 season will definitely be his last, but he’s still thinking of the European Championships in Zurich.

Last year Piotr Malachowski had a mighty discus throw of 71.84m in Hengelo and in the process he ended Robert Harting’s winning streak that stretched back more than 1000 days.

On Sunday it’s time for revenge. Malachowski leads the 2014 world season list with his 69.21m throw in Halle last month, but Harting was a clear winner of their last battle, at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome earlier this week, when the German threw a season’s best of 68.36m to defeat Malachowski by two-and-a-half metres.

The Netherlands took a surprise silver medal at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow last year, when Ignisious Gaisah jumped a national record of 8.29m. Born in Ghana, Gaisah has now been living in the Netherlands for more than 10 years and changed citizenship in 2013.

It will be a tough job for him to win in Hengelo as Olympic champion Greg Rutherford will be there too. The Briton improved the national record earlier this year with a world-leading 8.51m leap.

World heptathlon bronze medallist Dafne Schippers – who recently improved the Dutch records in the 200m (22.35) and heptathlon (6545) – will run in the 100m in Hengelo. Kerron Stewart, who finished second in Rome earlier this week, will be in the field, as well as European champion Ivet Lalova.

An all-Dutch battle is expected in the 1500m. Sifan Hassan brought the old national record of Elly van Hulst down to 4:01.19 in Shanghai and then 3:59.38 in Eugene, improving the European under-23 best in the process. Susan Kuijken and Maureen Koster are the other Dutch contenders in this field, but Mimi Belete and Irene Jelagat are serious contenders too.

This edition of the AA-Drink FBK Games has an extra special significance. Last winter the local government wanted to turn the venue into a soccer stadium, which would have brought an end to the 33-year tradition of this IAAF World Challenge meeting. But at the last minute, the athletics community in the Netherlands made a stand and managed to put a stop to the plans.

“It’s been a real struggle,” says meeting director Hans Kloosterman, “but I’m glad we can talk about athletics itself again.”

Cors van den Brink for the IAAF