Yelena Isinbayeva at the pre-competition press conference in Moscow (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Moscow, Russia

Athletes express guarded optimism on eve of championships

On the eve of the 11th IAAF World Indoor Championships, guarded optimism was the prevailing mood shared by some athletes who are expected to be but a few of the key players this weekend at the first global championship ever to be held in Russia.

“It’s a great honour and responsibility to compete in front of a home crowd,” said World and Olympic Pole Vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva, who will compete on home soil in an international championship for the first time since winning the 1998 World youth title. This time around, she knows the stakes are much higher, but insists that she doesn’t feel any pressure despite being the subject of posters and billboards marking the championships.

“No, it doesn’t add any pressure,” said Isinbayeva, who in her season’s debut raised her own World indoor record to 4.91. “It just makes me feel welcome and makes me feel that I’m loved.”

After a few training sessions here, Isinbayeva said she’s feeling confident about the weekend competition, and stressed that she has fully adjusted to her recent coaching switch to Vitaliy Petrov, the trainer who guided Pole Vault legend Segey Bubka.

“Vitaliy Petrov is more detailed technically,” Isinbayeva said. “Sergey Bubka’s results show that. I am now running better and faster and my technique has changed.”

While adding another notch to her World record tally is not her priority this weekend, Isinbayeva didn’t dismiss the possibility, repeating her oft-stated goal.

“I want to set 36 world records, or even more,” she said. “Everyone remembers you for World records. So I want to break more than Bubka so you remember me even more.”

Last weekend in Lievin, Isinbayeva watched as Anna Rogowska of Poland made three attempts at her World record, a challenge she welcomes.

“Having strong competition here makes me even more motivated. It was very exciting and challenging to see and it makes the competition here even more attractive.”

Other athletes attending the afternoon press conference said they expect extremely compelling competition when the championships begin at 10 a.m. Friday morning, including Croatian High Jumper Blanka Vlasic, the bronze medallist from Budapest two years ago.

Just a few weeks ago, the women’s High Jump was shaping into a showdown between Swede Kajsa Bergqvist, who last month raised the World record to 2.08, and Vlasic, who elevated herself to the No. 3 spot all-time with her 2.05 leap. Though the Swede has been sidelined from Moscow, Vlasic refuses to take on the role of favourite.

“It’s not easier [without Bergqvist],” the 22-year-old two-time World junior champion said. “Lots of good girls are here and want the same thing. Everybody will be ready. It’s a World championship and there can always be surprises.” Vlasic, who has fully recovered from a hyperthyroid condition that required surgery last year, added that she will miss her Swedish rival. “I’m very sorry that she couldn’t come.”

After jumping to the World outdoor title in Helsinki last summer, U.S. Triple Jumper Walter Davis said he needed little motivation during his off season training in an attempt to move up a notch from his silver medal showing at the 2003 World indoor championships in Birmingham.

“I know that after Helsinki, that the others were going to be out to defeat me this year. So that was very good motivation to train hard after last summer.”  Davis has reached 17.11 this season, but has an indoor best of 17.62 from last year. Emotionally charged major competitions can produce big performances, Davis said, perhaps even World records.

“Anything is possible. It’s just who can get perform the best on the day.”

Double World bronze medallist Christine Arron of France shared cautious optimism as well, but stopped short of promising to lower her 7.06 national record set earlier this winter.

“I don’t know if conditions will be favorable for more records,” she said, “but the primary goal is to win.”

In his introductory remarks at the afternoon press conference, IAAF President Lamine Diack mentioned the impact the host nation has had on world athletics and noted the preparedness the strong host team has displayed during the 2006 indoor season.

“Russia has always made a tremendous impact on world athletics, and was one of the founder nations of the IAAF back in 1912,” Diack said. “From that time on, Soviet, and more recently Russian, athletes, have helped write the history books of our sport with many magnificent world records and medal winning performances, consistently topping the medal tables at major championships.”  In the 10 editions of the IAAF World Championships from 1983 until 2005, the USSR and Russia have had 402 athletes making finals, while in the women’s events alone, 250 athletes made finals, which is better than any other nation.

“For this reason, I strongly believe that Russia has really earned the right to host our major events,” Diack added. This weekend marks the first time that Russia will host a global indoor or outdoor championship.

In all, 635 athletes from 133 member federations will take part in these championships. In the first edition in 1987, athletes from 85 member federations participated.

“You can see how far we have come to make our sport more universal around the world,” Diack said.

Diack also emphasized that the IAAF’s fight against doping will continue in Moscow. 100 pre-competition blood tests where planned, Diack said, along with 125 in-competition.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF