With two days of qualifying behind the athletes, the finals started in earnest yesterday Saturday (19) at the European U23 Championships, 17 - 20 July. And the athletes responded with nine Championships records either broken or tied among the twenty events decided.
Early on Thursday evening, Belarus triple jumper Dmitriy Valyukevich had been a notable, but not overly outstanding performer with a 16.81 career best achieved only three weeks ago. Now, on Saturday evening, as European U23 champion, he can claim a world-class PB of 17.57.
Valyukevich’s ascent began during the qualifying two days ago, as he marginally added to his best with a 16.83 to signal his potential as a medal contender. But Romania’s Marian Oprea, at 16.85, was clearly the favourite, based on his past credentials as World and European junior champion.
In last night’s final, Oprea led off with 17.15, to which Valyukevich responded with a 17.16. The next round saw the Romanian take the lead back with 17.26, only to have the Minsk-based jumper explode with a 17.51.
As good as this jump was, Valyukevich still could not claim the family record, as father Gennadiy had recorded a 17.53 during the 1986 season while a Soviet athlete. (Coincidentally, 17.53 was also the best performance ever recorded by Dmitry’s new coach, Aleksandr Beskrovniy.)
Now, with three attempts left, Oprea had a challenge on his hands. His magnificent next leap, roughly in the area of 17.50, drew a red flag from the board judge. The video replay did not clearly reveal a foul, but the Romanian was shown marks in the clay on which the judge based his decision.
“It did not seem that it was a mark I had made,” said Oprea afterwards. “I think it was one from a previous jumper. But it was not my decision. I want it to be a fair competition.” The Romanian then showed great class by gesturing to the crowd to stop whistling so the competition could continue.
The Belrussian was not done, however. After patiently waiting for the commotion to abate, he extended his best to 17.57 and could finally claim the family jumping leadership.
By now, Oprea had seen enough, and he was unable to improve during the remaining rounds. “This was really unexpected, to improve so much on one evening,” he said. “But it is also the first competition I have had this year so far from home. It tells me that I’m going to have to do more work to get ready for Paris.”
For Valyukevich, the fantastic evening of jumping means he will now be included on the Belarus team roster competing in Paris. “It’s really unbelievable that I bettered my personal best by 74 centimetres tonight. I’m looking forward to Paris,” he said.
Almost invisible as one of the supporting players was Germany’s Rudolf Helping, who won the bronze medal with 16.66.
Continuing the theme of superb jumping was Carolina Klüft, and there seems to be nothing that the Swedish athlete can’t do - and do well - these days. Taking a pre-Paris rest from multievent competition, the European Heptathlon champion entered the Women’s Long Jump and came away with the gold after jumping two personal bests on her two legal jumps and ending with a U23 Championships record 6.86.
Olga Simagina of Russia took the silver over Latvia’s Ineta Radevica on a countback, as each had a 6.70 best for the day.
“This was a lot of fun for me,” said Klüft, knowing that there was no real pressure on her this weekend. “This result was really impressive, and it makes me even more confident before the Worlds.”
With only three jumpers in the world possessing better Long Jump marks this season, it’s tempting to think what Klüft might accomplish in Paris in the individual event.
“It’s under consideration,” confirmed Yannick Tregaro, one of the Swedish delegation coaches, who characterized Klüft as an “unleashed tiger, with so much energy.”
Still riding the crest of her first-ever two-metre performance two weeks ago in Zagreb, Blanka Vlasic of Croatia equalled the U23 Championship record with her winning 1.98 leap, as Russia’s Yelena Slesarenko (1.96) and Anna Ksok of Poland (1.92) took the other High Jump medals.
“This proves I’m in good form,” the two-time World Junior Champion said, with thoughts ahead to the Paris championships. But although she’s going through the finest period of her career, Vlasic admitted some fatigue was setting in. “I dream of having a vacation, to spend it in my quiet house on the seaside, away from all of this sport traveling.”
After battling ankle and hamstring injuries most of the spring, Poland’s Marek Plawgo finally demonstrated his return to fitness with a splendid 48.45 U23 Championships record win in the Men’s 400 Hurdles. It was an U23 Championships record.
After taking a deep bow to the home crowd when introduced, the current European indoor 400 champion charged out of the blocks and took a lead which seemed to grow as he cleared each of the ten hurdles.
Not content to let Plawgo get away easily, Germany’s Christian Duma chased the Pole all of the way and ended up with a PB 49.53 for his silver-medal performance. The bronze went to Thomas Kortbeek of the Netherlands with 49.68.
Twice disappointed by the effects of high-altitude training in previous years, Plawgo decided to remain in Poland this season for training. “I was starting to lose self-confidence, so this win today was very important for me.” Visibly happy that a long period of injury appears to be over, Plawgo exclaimed right after the race, “Now, I’m back with the hurdles.”
Earlier in the day, the host country captured its first gold medal of the weekend as Benjamin Kuciński won the Men’s 20K Walk in a PB 1:22:07, almost two minutes ahead of the silver medallist, Sergey Lystsov of Russia (1:24:04). Andrey Talashko of Belarus took the bronze in 1:24:28.
In the Women’s 400 Hurdles, Oksana Gulumyan of Russia took a large lead early in the race but had to hold off a late push by the 2001 bronze medallist, Latvia’s Irena Zauna, to win the title, as the two were timed in 56.23 and 56.47, respectively. Also coming on strongly at the end was Maria Rus of Romania, who won the bronze with a PB 57.01.
It’s one down and one to go for Dutch thrower Rutger Smith, who was virtually unchallenged in his 59.90 win in the Men’s Discus, as Dmitriy Sivakov of Belarus (58.00) and Russia’s Bogdan Pishchalnikov (56.88) shared the victory stand with Smith.
“I was hoping to throw around 63 metres,” said Smith afterwards, admitting that his main goal is to capture the shot put on Sunday. “I’d like to repeat my double success from Riga [European junior championships in 1999].”
Although she failed in her one attempt at 4.85, which would have broken her own World record in the women’s Pole Vault, Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva was a crowd favorite as she set a U23 Championships record of 4.65 with her win. Vanessa Boslak of France (4.40) and Poland’s Anna Rogowska (4.35) collected the other two medals.
Leslie Djhone of France ran powerfully over the second half of the Men’s 400 Metres and took the gold medal with a U23 Championships record 45.04. Poland’s Rafał Wieruszewski, winner of the bronze in Amsterdam, challenged Djhone on the backstraight and into the final curve, but the extra effort perhaps cost him the silver medal, as Britain’s Tim Benjamin pipped the Pole at the finish, 45.86 to 45.87.
The gold medal in the women’s 400 metres was still up for grabs at the halfway mark in the race, as the field remained remarkably even. In the final curve, Helen Karagounis of Great Britain made her move, and it carried her to victory in a PB 51.78. The top qualifier from the semi-finals, Solène Desert of France, took the silver with 52.05, also a PB, while the final medal went to Tatyana Firova of Russia (52.14).
The Men’s 800 metres was an expectedly hard-fought race. Germany’s René Herms took the lead from Florent Lacasse after 300 metres and, although the space between the runners was never more than two metres, Herms was only briefly challenged by Lacasse on the final straight. It was a strong showing for Herms, also the current European junior champion, as he won in 1:46.26 over Lacasse’s 1:46.47. One of three Spanish runners in the final, Manuel Olmedo, took the bronze in 1:46.83.
It wasn’t until the men’s 100 metres was halfway over that French sprinter Ronald Pognon had a clear lead on his way to the gold medal in 10.19, as he tied the U23 Championships record. The Martinique-born Pognon pulled Estonia’s Argo Golberg to a surprising PB 10.28 for the silver medal, as another French sprinter, Fabrice Calligny, won a tight three-way battle for the bronze in 10.34.
The women’s 100 metres was clearly in the hands of Greece’s Yeoryía Koklóni, who flew out of the blocks to an early lead enroute to her PB 11.33 gold-medal performance. Only at the end did Daria Onysko of Poland appear to be making a late bid, a final push bringing her the silver in 11.46, also a career best, just ahead of Oksana Dragun of Belarus (11.48).
Olesya Chumakova of Russia took the gold in the Women’s 1500 metres with 4:11.75, as Lithuania’s Rasa Drazdauskaite chased her home for the silver in 4:12.16. Lisa Dobriskey of Great Britain ran a PB 4:12.95 for the bronze.
Krisztian Pars upheld the men’s Hammer tradition of Hungary with a 77.25 performance, defeating Esref Apak of Turkey (76.52). The rest of the field, more than 4½ metres behind the front pair, was led by Aleksandr Vashchilo of Belarus, who took the bronze with 71.91.
Yet another U23 Championship record fell as Martin Pröll of Austria sprinted away to a 8:25.86 victory in the last lap of the men’s Steeplechase. His expected rival, the current European junior champion Radosław Popławski of Poland, took the silver (8:27.95), and with a strong final sprint, Finland’s Jukka Keskisalo held on to the bronze (8:28.53).
In the Women’s Shot Put, Belarus’ Natalya Khoroneko threw her winning 17.66 in the second round to take the lead from the eventual silver medallist, Kathleen Kluge of Germany, at 17.09. Filiz Kadogan of Turkey rounded out the trio of medallists with a 16.72 toss.
The opening 58.28 by Ukraine’s Irina Kharun in the women’s Javelin stood as the leading mark until Jarmila Klimesová of the Czech Republic threw a PB 60.54 for the win. The bronze medal went to Mariya Yakovenko of Russia (57.52) over Natalya Shimchuk of Belarus (57.45), as both achieved their bests on their final attempts.
Hungary’s Krisztina Papp scored an upset win in the women’s 10,000 metres over U23 list leader Valentina Levushkina of Russia, 33:23.02 to 33:28.73, as Louise Damen of Great Britain was close to the top medallists with her bronze-medal performance of 33:29.82.
Lyubov Ivanova of Russia pulled away from three other competitors over the final kilometre of the women’s Steeplechase and sailed to victory in a U23 Championships record 9:41.16. Sprinting hard at the end, Michaela Mannová of the Czech Republic overtook Belgium’s Sigrid Vanden Bempt for the silver, 9:42.01 to 9:42.04, as all three medallists registered career bests.
Two qualifying rounds still remained after the first two days.
The 2001 silver medallist in the Men’s Long Jump, Volodymyr Zyuskov of Ukraine, led the qualifying round with a 8.11. The current European junior champion, Loúis Tsátoumas of Greece had the fifth-best jump with 7.89.
Germany’s Jana Tucholke and U23 season leader Natalya Fokina of Ukraine were the only competitors in the women’s Discus to achieve the automatic qualifying mark, as they threw 56.00 and 54.65, respectively, on their only attempts. The bronze medallist from two years ago, Olga Goncharenko of Belarus, achieved only 48.47 for fourteenth place and was eliminated.