03 MAR 2011 Preview

High hopes for the home team in Paris - European Indoor Champs - PREVIEW

Teddy Tamgho extends his world lead to 17.64m in Lievin (Thierry Plouy)Teddy Tamgho extends his world lead to 17.64m in Lievin (Thierry Plouy) © Copyright

Paris, FranceWith a number of tantalising head-to-head match-ups topping the bill, this weekend’s 31st European Indoor Championships (4 to 6 March) at the Palais Omnisport Paris-Bercy will provide a fitting climax to this indoor season, and in  some instances, even a glimpse at what is to come at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics - Daegu 2011 next August.

As was the case at these championships in Turin two years ago, quite a bit of the attention in Paris this weekend will be directed to the infield, particularly to the Triple Jump and Pole Vault runways. And at the moment, there is no star looming larger over these championships than Frenchman Teddy Tamgho.

Local boys Tamgho, Lavillenie and Lemaitre the headliners - MEN’S Events

Tamgho was already a prized prodigy entering these championships two years ago but he left Turin bitterly disappointed, failing to advance to the final. He made up for that in a big way last year when he capped the World Indoor Championships with a 17.90m World record in Doha.

He improved on that 11 days ago in Aubiere with a 17.91m leap and is said to be gunning for the 18-metre barrier this weekend, but we'll have to wait. The Triple Jump final is the last field event on the schedule on Sunday afternoon.

Tamgho, still just 21, has been consistent this season, backing up his most recent global standard with the three farthest jumps in the world - 17.91m, 17.64m and 17.59 - and four of the best six.

With World and European champion Phillips Idowu staying home this weekend, Tamgho's chief opposition should be Romanian Marian Oprea (17.37m SB), Russian Lyukman Adams (17.32m SB) and Swede Christian Olsson, the 2004 Olympic champion whose World indoor record Tamgho broke last year. Italy’s Fabrizio Donato will also be defending his title.

Tamgho will be making the most of his time this weekend, choosing to double back in the Long Jump as well. Although he’s competed sparingly in the event, he’s improved to 8.01m and insists that his intentions are to be more than just a tourist in the event. He’s one of a dozen Europeans who’ve managed eight metres this winter. Louis Tsatoumas of Greece is the world leader at 8.21m, but a lingering injury puts his weekend in doubt. Russian Aleksandr Menkov (8.17m) and Swede Michel Torneus (8.13m) are strong medal contenders.

Although he won’t start with an unbeaten 2011 streak, Renaud Lavillenie will nonetheless be the man to beat in the Pole Vault.

The 24-year-old, whose dominant 2010 campaign culminated with the European title outdoors and the Samsung Diamond League title, has won six of his seven competitions in 2011, and produced the three best leaps - 5.93m, 5.92m and 5.90m.

Though they're not as consistent, his main rivals are certainly capable to pull off a surprise in this highly unpredictable event. Ukraine's Maksym Mazuryk cleared his 5.88m season's best finishing second to the Frenchman in Donetsk, while Malte Mohr, who heads the always powerful German vaulting corps, has a 5.86 to his credit this season. Last year Mohr finished second at the World Indoor Championships while Lavillenie didn't reach the final. Poland's Pawel Wojciechowski, just 21, made a big breakthrough this season, clearing 5.86m in Gent. Can he again rise to the occasion on a much bigger stage?

Ukhov World record assault?

Like Tamgho, another overwhelming favourite who may have World record ambitions is Ivan Ukhov, the reigning European and World indoor champion. The 24-year-old Russian is unbeaten in six starts this winter, and has topped 2.38m twice and 2.34m as well, higher than anyone else in the field this winter. He's even come remarkably close to Javier Sotomayor's 2.43m World record, whose 22nd anniversary will be celebrated when the jumpers compete in the qualifying round on Friday.

Can anyone challenge? That role falls primarily on the shoulders of his compatriot Aleksandr Shustov who took the European title last summer. He’s cleared 2.32m this winter, while Finn Osku Torro has reached a notch higher at 2.33m.

Sprints – Chambers vs Lemaitre?

French hopes are high too in the 60m given the entry of Christophe Lemaitre who dashed into the history books at the European Championships in Barcelona last summer after taking victories in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. But the man to beat will the defending champion Dwain Chambers.

Since taking the title in Turin two years ago – where he also clocked a 6.42 European record in the semis - the powerful 32-year-old took the World indoor title in Doha last winter as well. At 6.57, he hasn’t been nearly as fast this season but will arrive in the French capital as the season’s quickest European.

After a sluggish start to his season slowed by a period of heavy training, Lemaitre, still just 20, took the French title in Aubiere two weeks ago with a 6.58 run. With an improved start, he could give Chambers a strong challenge for continental bragging rights.

With Martial Mbandjock (6.66 SB/ 6.65 PB), a double dash bronze medallist last summer, France comes armed with a strong 1-2 punch. Britons Joel Fearson (6.64) and Harry Aikines-Aryeetey (6.64SB/6.55 PB) could also be in the mix in Sunday’s final.

Another hope for the home squad is 400m veteran Leslie Djhone. The French indoor and outdoor record holder has been consistent in his three appearances, capped by a 46.13 season's best. A similar time could be enough to win. Swede Johan Wissman will be back to defend his title, but in his one outing, a modest 47.41 in Stockholm, his current form is in doubt. Briton Nigel Levine (46.17) and Thomas Schneider of Germany (46.19) have also dipped under 46.20.

Farah on cruise control

The middle and long distance events appear as unpredictable as ever with one exception: the men’s 3000m where Briton Mo Farah looms particularly large. Since taking this title two years ago, he’s made considerable leaps on the European stage, taking the 5000m/10,000m double in Barcelona last summer, and lowering the national 5000m record indoors and out.

With his 7:35.81 season's best, he's more than six seconds faster than anyone else in the field and appears ready to win off of any pace. He'll certainly be difficult to beat. Of those looking to rain on his defence parade is Spaniard Jesus Espana, who beat Farah to the outdoor title in 2006, and Hayle Ibrahimov of Azerbaijan who improved to 7:42.54 this year. French hopes lie with Yoann Kowal (7:46.19 SB/PB), Yohan Durand (7:50.52), and Florian Carvalho (7:53.11).

Conversely, the 800 and 1500 appear to be wide open affairs.

With 2009 winner Yuriy Borzakovskiy passing on the indoor season, the 800m has shaped into a battle between Spain and Poland. Spaniard Kevin Lopez leads the European list with his 1:46.06 career best but Pole Marcin Lewandowski, last year's outdoor champion has been quick too at 1:46.17. Nine men in the field have run faster than 1:47, including Adam Kszczot and Luis Alberto Marco, the Polish and Spanish No. 2s respectively.

In the 1500m, Spain and Poland figure prominently, but so does host France, where Kowal, the bronze medallist two years ago has high hopes. The 23-year-old improved his PB to 3:38.07 in Stuttgart to arrive as the fastest in the field. He'll have big shoes to fill with Mehdi Baala sidelined with injury. Diego Ruiz leads the always-formidable Spanish team, while Bartosz Nowicki, another 2011 sub-3:39 runner, leads Polish hopes.

Two gold for the Czechs?

In the 60m Hurdles rising Czech star Petr Svoboda arrives in solid form with very realistic ambitions to move up from his bronze medal finish two years ago. The 26-year-old from Prague is unbeaten in six races with a 7.48 season's best - the third fastest in the world and quickest among Europeans. A pair of rising French stars, however, aren't too far behind. Dimitri Bascou has improved to 7.52 and Garfield Darien, last year’s silver medallist outdoors, to 7.56.

In the Heptathlon, living legend Roman Sebrle will be making his sixth consecutive appearance in these championships and targeting his fourth title. He leads the European lists with a 6117-point tally and as the event’s grand old man at 36, will certainly be the sentimental favourite. But the more likely battle for the gold will be between Estonians Mikk Pahapill, the 2009 winner, and Andres Raja, who finished second to Ashton Eaton's World record with a 6114-point tally in Tallinn where Sebrle finished a distant fifth.

Elsewhere, Germany could wind up with a pair of medals in the Shot Put courtesy of Ralf Bartels and David Storl while the competition could end with another French victory in the 4x400m relay where the hosts will start as favourites.

New stars ready to step from the shadows? – WOMEN’s Events

With injury sidelining a number of key athletes who were expected to star in the French capital this weekend, others who have made their impact on the indoor circuit will be looking to make their presence felt on the biggest stage the winter season has to offer. Beginning with rising Ukrainian sprint star Olesya Povh.

The women's 60m has seen its share of surprises over the years, but at the moment Povh is the woman to beat. The 23-year-old European leader at 7.13 - and No. 3 in the world at the moment - has been unbeaten and consistent, claiming victories in Dusseldorf, Stuttgart and Lievin. But she's largely untested in big championships, however, and will look to prove her worth.

She'll have fellow European 4x100 Relay European champion Mariya Ryemyen for company, another 23-year-old who like Povh, has improved by a full 0.10 this season, in her case to 7.15. French hopes rest with triple Barcelona medallist Myriam Soumare and Veronique Mang, who clocked 17.23 and 7.19 at the French championships.

But outside the 60m, many events on the women’s side of the programme look to be dominated by perennial powerhouse Russia.

400/800 sweeps for Russia?

Russia has always been strong in the 400m and 800m at these championships, a tradition that’s likely to continue here. Even with defending champion and Barcelona winner Mariya Savinova on the sidelines this weekend, Russia will still be well-represented. There is Yuliya Rusanova, the world leader at 1:58.14 and freshly minted Russian champion; Yevgeniya Zinurova, the season's only other sub-1:59 runner at 1:58.83; and Tatyana Paliyenko (2:00.17 SB/PB), who at 27 makes her first international appearance.

Doing her part to break a Russian sweep as well as its recent continental stranglehold on the event will be Briton Jenny Meadows, who took bronze two years ago and World indoor silver two years ago. At 1:59.22, she's currently No. 3 on the World list.

In the 400m Olesya Forsheva (formerly Krasnomovets) is the Russian trio's fastest at 51.51, and will come with back up from Ksenia Zadorina (51.88). But faster than both this year is Bulgarian Vania Stambolova who clocked 51.27 in Budapest in late January, until the last weekend the season's fastest run.

Wide open 1500m

On the other hand there is nothing predictable about the 1500m, one of the weekend's most wide open races. Poland's Silwia Ejdys is the continent's fastest this year at 4:05.38, but her teammate Renata Plis, Britons Hannah England and Stacy Smith and Russian Yekaterina Martynova, with just over half a second separating them, can all pull out a win depending on how the race plays out.

In the 3000m, the favourite’s role should fall on defending champion Alemitu Bekele from Turkey, who also brought down a solid field to win the 5000m title in Barcelona. She has yet to run this season, but will certainly arrive ready.

One of closest races on the programme is the women's 60m Hurdles where European leader Christina Vukicevic (7.90), last summer's outdoor champion Carolin Nytra (7.92) of Germany and Russian Aleksandra Antonova (7.93) are separated by just 0.03.

Di Martino savouring the spotlight

With Blanka Vlasic and Ariane Friedrich absent this year, the former by choice and the latter to injury, Italy’s Antonietta Di Martino will take on the favourite’s role. The 32-year-old, who took silver in 2007, improved her lifetime best to 2.04m this winter, currently the highest leap of the season. On paper her closest competitor is the current Russian No. 1, Svetlana Shkolina who equalled her 2.00m lifetime behind Di Martino’s big leap in Banska Bystrica last month.

Although she’s only leaped 1.95m this season, Spaniard Ruth Beitia is always ready when it counts. The World indoor silver medallist last year, Beitia has taken medals in each of the last three editions of the these championships.

There’s the strong likelihood that for the first time since 2000, the winner of the Pole Vault will not be from Russia. World record holder Yelena Isinbayeva, who returned to action after a near year-long layoff last month, withdrew from the competition due to illness and Svetlana Feofanova, the former World record holder and reigning European champion outdoors, passed on the meet. That leaves just the relatively inexperienced Aleksandra Kiryashova (4.61m SB) as the lone Russian hope.

More likely the figure in the medal chase are Poland’s Anna Rogowska, the 2009 World champion; German record holder Silke Spiegelburg and her compatriots Kristina Gadschiew and Elizaveta Ryzih. Rogowska and Spiegelburg have each scaled 4.73m this winter, while Gadschiew and Ryzih have gone 4.66m and 4.65m, respectively.

But keep a close eye on Swede Angelica Bengtsson as well. The reigning World youth and junior champion has improved the World junior record all the way to 4.63m this winter, and she’s still only 17.

Historical Russian sweep in the Long Jump?


What Team Russia may lose in the Pole Vault they look to gain in the Long Jump. With Anna Nazarova, the world leader at 6.89, Darya Klishina (6.82m) and Yuliya Pidluzhnaya (6.70m), the first sweep in the event is not outside the realm of possibility. Team top-three ambitions grew in strength with the withdrawal of defending champion Ksenija Balta of Estonia.

Elsehwere, the Triple Jump has been somewhat in the doldrums this winter, but its primary practitioners are all Europeans and the current top-five in the world will be starting in Paris. With 14.47m and 14.45m leaps, Germany's Katya Demut has the world's two best jumps, but Ukraines's Olha Saladuha (14.45m) and Papahristou Paraskevi (14.40m) of Greece are not far behind.

And finally, in the Shot Put Germany's Christina Schwanitz (18.87m) and Alena Kopets (18.82m) of Belarus are heads and shoulders above the rest of the field.

The departure of Jessica Ennis due to injury leaves the Pentathlon title wide open as well. Based on the season's lists, Lithuanian Austra Skujyte and Frenchwoman Antoinette Nana Djimou Ida, at 4578 and 4540, are the women to beat for the weekend’s first gold medal to be awarded.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF