01 MAR 2007 Preview 1 March 2007 – Birmingham, UK

European Indoor Championships - PREVIEW

Blanka Vlasic clears 2m in Gothenburg (Hasse Sjögren)Blanka Vlasic clears 2m in Gothenburg (Hasse Sjögren) © Copyright

Birmingham, UKWith several key headtohead match-ups topping the proceedings, this weekend’s 29th European Indoor Championships at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena (2 to 4 March 2007) will provide a fitting climax to the indoor season, and in a few instances, perhaps even a glimpse at what is to come at August’s IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Osaka, Japan (25 Aug - 2 Sep 2007).

While a total of 315 men and 272 women from 45 countries have entered the Championships, much of the world’s attention this weekend will be directed to the infield, particularly to the jumps. Indeed, no event is so dominated by Europeans as is the High Jump, and both the men’s and women’s contests are set to be among the weekend’s primary highlights.

Focus on the High Jump

The men’s contest couldn’t have asked for a finer preview than last weekend’s Swedish national championships. There, in a sizzling duel, Olympic and defending European Indoor champion Stefan Holm defeated Linus Thörnblad, with each topping out at 2.38m, a personal best for the latter. Holm underscored his form this winter with a 2.37 clearance earlier. But the Swedish pair aren’t the highest as the Championships approach; that distinction belongs to 20-year-old Russian Ivan Ukhov, the 2005 continental junior champion who raised the national record to 2.39 in late January. Six others expected in the competition have leapt 2.30 or higher, including another Russian, Andrey Tereshin (2.35), and Tomas Janku (2.34) who leads a solid Czech contingent.

Last summer in Gothenburg, two-time World Junior champion and twice World indoor medallist Blanka Vlasic earned the distinction of producing the highest non-medal winning jump at a major competition with her 2.01m leap. Such is the concentration of talent on the continent that it remains conceivable that a two metre clearance may not be enough for a medal this weekend.

Vlasic, the 23-year-old Croatian, has three clearances of two metres or better this winter, and is among the favourites in the women’s competition. But so is Bulgarian veteran Venelina Veneva, the world leader at 2.02, and Belgian record holder and European champion outdoors, Tia Hellebaut, who has a two metre clearance to her credit this season as well. Also joining the large group of medal contenders is Spaniard Ruth Beitia, who raised her own national indoor record to 2.01 last weekend, and Antonietta Di Martino of Italy, who joined the two metres club a few weeks ago. Beitia was second two years ago, while Veneva was third.

Defending champion Anna Chicherova of Russia has also cleared 1.98 this season, but hasn’t displayed the same level of consistency as the key players.

Although she’s cleared 1.98 this winter, World indoor record holder Kajsa Bergqvist has been struggling, and admitted to her frustration, and decided to skip the event to focus the outdoor season.

Pickering – Gardener showdown

Among the key highlights for the sell-out crowd will be the men’s 60 metres, which pits Britain’s three-time champion Jason Gardener against training partner Craig Pickering, this season’s major newcomer on the continental scene. Pickering, the 2005 European junior 100m champion and still just 20, has displayed solid consistency as he’s lowered his personal best to 6.55 while collecting a pair of quick victories, two of those over Gardener. Gardener has been less consistent, but rebounded with a win of his own 11 days ago at the National Indoor Arena with a season’s best 6.57. Ronald Pognon of France, the European indoor record holder, has had consistency problems of his own and remains a question mark. After a 6.55 earlier this month, he ran a dismal 6.70 in Paris last weekend, failing to advance to the final.

Bulgaria's double World junior sprint champion Tezdzhan Naimova, not yet 20, will arrive in Birmingham as the season's fastest after her 7.13 victory at the Balkan Championships last week, but momentum looks to be with defending women’s 60m dash champion Kim Gevaert. The 28-year-old Belgian, who last summer took the continental titles at 100 and 200 metres, began her season late but is improving rapidly, with a 7.15 victory in her latest outing in Paris last weekend. Russians Yevgeniya Polyakova and Marina Kislova have also dipped under 7.20 this season, and could be solid podium threats. Noteworthy too is sprint legend Merlene Ottey’s entry in her first European Indoor championship. Ottey, who has represented Slovenia since 2002, has clocked 7.30 this year, just a few months before her 47th birthday.

Klüft ‘overwhelming favourite’; Sebrle a powerful threat

The championships kick off Friday morning with the women’s Pentathlon, where Swede Carolina Klüft is the overwhelming favourite to defend her title. The 24-year-old however hasn’t exhibited the finest form of her career this winter, which may show some signs of vulnerability this weekend. That’s something that Dutch hope Karen Ruckstuhl and the British pair of Kelly Sotherton and Jessica Ennis will hope to take full advantage of.

The men’s Heptathlon, which begins Saturday morning, features Russian Aleksandr Pogorelov, fourth at last summer’s European Championships and fifth at the World Championships the year before, and this year the only athlete in the world to tally more than 6000 points with his 6095 victory at the Russian Championships. Andrei Krauchanka of Belarus and Russian Aleksey Drozdov appear to be the closest, while Roman Sebrle, the defending champion who was third at the World Indoor Championships last year, is certainly still a powerful threat.

German medal sweep in the men’s Pole Vault?

Another indoor world leader, Germany’s Björn Otto, leads a solid German squad in the men’s Pole Vault along with the country’s most solid medal chances. The 29-year-old, whose 5.90m career best elevated him into the event’s all-time top-20, has been the winter’s most consistent vaulter, with six victories in eight starts, and four outings over 5.80. He’ll be joined by compatriots Fabian Schulze (5.83) and Danny Ecker (5.82) who’ll be looking to repeat the German podium sweep of 1998. No other country has ever swept the medals in the event. Defending champion Igor Pavlov of Russia - best of 5.80 this year- looks to be the primary threat to rain on the German parade.

While the absence of superstar Yelena Isinbayeva clearly affects the lustre of the women’s Pole Vault, the event will nonetheless be a solid one, led by former World record holder Svetlana Feofanova of Russia and Poland’s Olympic bronze medallist Anna Rogowska. The pair, who have soared 4.85 and 4.80 indoors respectively, have 4.74 and 4.72 clearances to their credit this season. Germany’s Carolin Hingst and another Russian, Yuliya Golubchikova, have each improved to 4.70 this year, and should be in the medal hunt.

Sanders unstoppable?

The local spotlight will also be on 24-year-old Nicola Sanders, who has twice clocked 50.60 this year in the women’s 400m, the fastest in the world by nearly a full second. Clearly the class of the field, her chief opposition looks to be the always-strong Russian entries, led by Tatyana Veshkurova, who has clocked 51.66 this winter.

On paper, the favourite for the men’s 400 is the defending champion, Irishman David Gillick. Two years ago he ran away with the title in 46.30, but is considerably faster this year after his 45.91 victory in Dusseldorf, the world’s second fastest performance this year. Bastian Swillims of Germany (45.99) also recently dipped under 46 seconds to emerge as a medal hopeful, while the Birmingham crowd will be pulling for Robert Tobin, who’s dashed 46.07.

Petlyuk and Ceplak, the world’s two fastest, square-off in the 800

The women’s 800m is expected to be one of the fiercest battles, with the season’s two fastest women butting heads. Ukraine’s Tetyana Petlyuk showed she was serious about the championships after opening with a 1:58.67 personal best in Stuttgart, setting the tone for the season. She’s won each of her three races, including that Stuttgart contest over Slovenia’s Jolanda Ceplak, the World indoor record holder. Ceplak has dipped under two minutes in each of her four races, and is eager to make amends in Birmingham after her appearance in Madrid two years ago where she failed to advance from the first round. Three others have run under two minutes this season, including top British hope Jenny Meadows and Oksana Zbrozhek, who leads the Russian entries.

With no returning medallist and European outdoor champion Bram Som already ending his indoor season, Arnoud Okken, the Dutch No. 2, looks to be the man to beat in the men's 800m. With his 1:46.63, the 24-year-old is the lone entrant to run faster that 1:47 this winter.

Chojecka double?

If her double duty plans bear fruit, Poland’s Lidia Chojecka could be the biggest star of the weekend. The 30-year-old arrives in Birmingham as the world leader in the 1500m after her 4:03.73 victory in Stockholm where she dominated the proceedings. Her chief opposition appears to be Briton Helen Clitheroe and Slovenia’s resurgent Sonja Roman, who each have made significant strides this winter, improving to 4:05.81 and 4:06.75 respectively.

In the 3000m, Chojecka’s title defence will be a difficult one, thanks to Jo Pavey’s decision to contest the event to cap a stellar indoor campaign. The 33-year-old Briton solidified her position on the event's all-time top-10 list with her 8:31.50 to finish third behind Meseret Defar's World record* in Stuttgart.

The top race in the men’s middle distances will be the 3000m, where defending champion Alistair Cragg will face Bouabdellah Tahri, one of France's leading medal hopes, and the fastest European this season (7:38.41). Cragg, who's run 7:43.30 this winter, can also expect a stiff challenge from the always formidable Spanish distance corps, this winter led by Jesus Espana, the European 5000 metres champion, and Alberto Garcia. The home crowd will undoubtedly cheer for European Cross Country champion Mo Farah who just lost out on the continental 5000m outdoor title to Espana last summer in Gothenburg.

With the absence of defending champion Ivan Heshko, the men’s 1500m is a wide-open affair, with Spaniards Sergio Gallardo and Arturo Casado playing a leading role. Mounir Yemmouni of France, who has a 3:39.55 to his credit this winter, could be a factor as well.

Kallur has a clear run to gold

Sweden’s world leader Susanna Kallur is head and shoulders above the field in the women's 60 metres Hurdles, and is perhaps the most solid bet for a title defence this weekend. Her 7.85 best this season, just .05 seconds off of the personal best which brought her the title two years ago, seems well out of reach of even the nearest challengers, Russian Aleksandra Antonova and Reina-Flor Okori of France.

On paper the men's 60m Hurdles look to be a battle between Serhiy Demydyuk, who lowered the Ukrainian national record to 7.53, and Briton Andy Turner, whose significant rise this winter - a 7.55 career best - catapulted the 26-year-old to the continent's elite. But both should be cautious of Latvian star Stanislav Olijar, the European outdoor champion, who'll be aiming to make up for his disqualification from two years ago.

The men's Long Jump promises a heated competition, with Greek Louis Tsatoumas (8.17m), Italian star Andrew Howe (8.15), and Frenchman Salim Sdiri (8.13) leading the charge. Six others have reached beyond eight metres this winter, so a surprise medallist could emerge.

With her personal best 6.76m leap this winter, Portugal's Naide Gomes returns for her title defence in the best form of her life. Hot on her heels with career best of their own this winter are Ukraine's Viktoriya Rybalko (6.74) and Russian Natalya Lebusova (6.70).

With a slight hamstring tear sidelining Christian Olsson and the outright absence of the top women's jumpers, both the Triple Jump competitions lack star power, promising wide-open competitions. With the Swede's withdrawal, Briton Nathan Douglas (17.19m) is the year's top European this weekend, and he can expect to battle with Portugal's Nelson Evora and compatriot Philips Idowu. On the women's side, Olesya Bufalova of Russia leads all performers with a modest 14.30 leap.

As the continent's only 21-metre man this winter, Dane Joachim Olsen is the class of the field in the men's Shot Put, and a clear favourite to defend his title. The powerful Dane has reached 21.21 this winter, well ahead of chief challengers Pavel Lyzhyn (20.53) of Belarus and Slovenia's national record holder Miran Vodovnik, who's thrown 20.30.

Conversely, the women's event appears to be a toss-up (pun intended!) between Russian Irina Khudoroshkina and Italian Assunta Legnante, who each with season's best of 19.01, are well ahead of the rest of the field.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF

*subject to ratification