Kajsa Bergqvist celebrates 2.05m in London (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Gothenburg, Sweden

European Championships - Women’s preview

This Swedish western port city, host of the 1995 IAAF World Championships, again welcomes a large part of the athletics world when it stages next week’s 19th European Championships, from 7 to 13 August.

Here in Gothenburg, the primary local focus will be on the the Swedish “Fab Four” - Carolina Kluft, Kajsa Bergqvist, Christian Olsson, and Stefan Holm - a quartet that are more than just strong favourites in their respective events. Indeed for most of these national sporting heroes, all of whom have targeted this competition for more than a year, anything short of victory would be a brutal disappointment.

Kluft among the strongest favourites to defend

After winning the European title in 2002, Kluft, now an experienced 24 years of age, has won every major competition she’s contested since, including a pair of world championships and the Olympic crown. With a win streak of 15 competitions spanning back to 2001, Kluft is among the few overwhelming favourites to defend their titles in Gothenburg.

Kluft has a comfortable margin of more than 250 points on her chase pack, a quartet with season’s best of 6400 points or more. Russian Yuliya Ignatkina (6463), Ukraine’s Lyudmyla Blonska (6448), Lilli Schwarzkopf of Germany (6413) and Pole Karolina Tyminska (6402) have all tallied career bests this season, and are all expected to be in the hunt for a podium position. With a season’s best of 6396, Briton Kelly Sotherton, the Olympic bronze medallist, will certainly figure in the battle as well.

The Heptathlon won’t be enough for the fiercely competitive Swede. When multi-event competition concludes on Tuesday, Kluft will have a few days to rest before she tackles the Long Jump on Friday. With a season’s best of 6.67, she's not among the favourites, but that’s hardly enough to keep Kluft from pursuing a double podium quest of her own.

On paper, the Russian trio of Lyudmila Kolchanova (7.11), Oksana Udmurtova (7.02) and Natalya Lebusova (6.93) are well ahead of the rest of the field this season. Another three, including Greek Triple Jump star Hrisopiyi Devetzi, have broke the sand beyond 6.80.

Bergqvist – a World Record at home?

After an unsteady start to her season just two months ago, Kajsa Bergqvist has spent July working herself into the role where many expected her to be: that of yet another Swede favoured to defend their title on home soil.

She’s not only the year’s highest after her 2.05 clearance in London's Norwich Union Grand Prix last weekend and her 2.04 at the national championships 12 days earlier, she’s also reaching a level where she’s seriously threatening Stefka Kostadinova’s 2.09 World Record set nearly 19 years ago. A pair of strong efforts at 2.10 in London clearly showed that Kostadinova’s formidable mark doesn’t quite loom as large as it has.

But a win won’t come easily. Besides Chaunte Howard of the U.S., the cream of the High Jump crop all call Europe home, and each has targeted this competition as much as Bergqvist.

Croatia’s Blanka Vlasic has reached 2.03, improved to 2.06 indoors last winter, and has won two of the three Golden League meetings to remain in the Golden League Jackpot chase. After a silver medal showing at the World Indoor Championships in March, the young Vlasic has shown her big meet mettle.

But so has Yelena Slesarenko. Although the Russian has topped only 2 metres this season, the Olympic and World indoor champion is a proven championships competitor and may loom as the biggest threat to Bergqvist. Others in the mix include Belgian heptathlete Tia Hellebaut who has been remarkably consistent while focusing solely on the High Jump, and Bulgarian Venelina Veneva, who has clearances of 2.03 and 2.00 to her credit this season.

Yet another title for Isinbayeva?

The Swedes aren’t the only superstars on the programme in Gothenburg. Russian Yelena Isinbayeva certainly fits in that category, and here she’ll be chasing the one title that is notably missing from her already illustrious collection. But the World record holder will arrive in Gothenburg appearing, well, almost vulnerable. While she leads the world with a 4.91 clearance - and has the season’s No. 2 and 3 leaps - she has displayed difficulty adjusting to her new technique, and in her most recent outing, was defeated by Pole Monika Pyrek. Conversely, Pyrek, who finished second to the Russian in Helsinki last year, continues to steadily improve, most recently with a 4.75 effort. Former world record holder Svetlana Feofanova is returning to top form, and should also be considered a strong podium threat. In all, six have bettered 4.60 this season, with another seven over 4.50.

Can Lebedeva be stopped?

Unlike her compatriot, Tatyana Lebedeva has not shown any signs of lost dominance in the Triple Jump. The World leader with a 15.23 leap, Lebedeva is unbeaten in five competitions this summer; in all but one she reached beyond 15 metres. The podium battle will likely include her teammate Anna Pyatykh, the bronze medallist in Helsinki last summer, and Athens Olympic silver medallist Hrisopiyí Devetzí of Greece, who seems to have left her injury woes from 2005 behind her.

Gevaert – from double silver to double gold?

Like Francis Obikwelu in the men’s sprints, Belgium’s Kim Gevaert arrives in Gothenburg with double ambitions of her own. With bests of 11.04 and 22.20 this season, both national records for Gevaert who will celebrate her 28th birthday on 5 August, appears poised to improve on her double silver performance from Munich four years ago.

Russians figure prominently behind her, lead by Yuliya Gushchina (11.13) in the 100 and Natalya Rusakova (22.53, PB) in the 200, while Joice Maduaka of Great Britain, with her recent 11.23 career best, could play a role as well.

Of particular interest is the first European Championships appearance by sprint legend Merlene Ottey, who has represented Slovenia since 2002. Most recently, the 46-year-old has clocked 11.41 to rank 15th among those entered. Said her coach, Srdan Djordjevic: “Merlene’s getting faster with each race, and she has the ability and experience to surprise.”

Will Stambolova continue her rapid rise?

Vanya Stambolova has been on a tear since taking the silver medal at the World Indoor Championships in March. Thus far this summer, the 22-year-old has dashed to four Bulgarian national records in the 400, including a trio of sub-50 clockings that propelled her into the world elite. Russian Olga Zaytseva’s 49.49 PB from Tula is a bit faster than Stambolova’s 49.64, but the Bulgarian certainly has the momentum to be considered the favourite. Russians Svetlana Pospelova and Tatyana Veshkurova have also run fast this year - both at 49.99 - and could be in the mix while Commonwealth champion Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain has been slowed this summer by injury.

Russian middle distance depth on display

Russian middle distance depth has been clearly illustrated throughout the year and again will be put on vivid display here.

In the 800, Svetlana Klyuka (1:57.21), Svetlana Cherkasova (1:57.23) and Olga Kotlyarova (1:57.24) are the three fastest in the field, and among the fastest in the world. Yet despite fast performances, they often haven’t lived up to expectations on a major stage. Ukraine’s Tetyana Petlyuk also continues to improve, this year to 1:57.34, and could be in the mix for a medal finish.  British hopes lie with Rebecca Lyne, who’s improved dramatically to 1:58.20 this year. Slovenia’s Jolanda Ceplak, who missed valuable training time due to Achilles surgery last year, said she won’t burden herself with her role as defending champion. But with a recent sub-2:00 under her belt, she won’t count herself out either. In all, a dozen entrants have run under two minutes.

The 1500 includes perhaps the most formidable trio that any one country has entered in a single event: Russians Tatyana Tomashova, a two-time World champion; Yuliya Chizhenko, the World indoor champion and with her 3:55.68 PB the year’s fastest; and World indoor record holder Yelena Soboleva, who’s PB 3:56.43 trails only Chizhenko on the world lists. Closest to the big three is recently-minted French record holder Latifa Essarokh, who finally dipped under four minutes (3:59.16) after a succession of near misses.

Abeylegesse on the double

In April, Elvan Abeylegesse of Turkey produced a stunning 30:21.67 world leader and personal best under brutal conditions at the European 10,000 meter Challenge in Antalya. Yet while she’s raced very sparingly since, the 23-year-old is certainly the prohibitive favourite. Abeylegesse has contested only one 5000 race this season, but with credentials as the former World record holder, she could be the woman to beat in that event as well.

Norway’s Susanne Wigene and Briton Jo Pavey, with 14:52.68 and 14:59.08 performances to their credit this season, are the fastest on paper in the 5000, while Hungary’s Krisztina Papp and Bouchra Ghezielle of France could produce a challenge as well.

In the longer race, Abeylegesse will face Russians Galina Bogomolova and Lidiya Grigoryeva, both with sub-31:00s to their credit; Dutchwoman Lornah Kiplagat, and Latvian marathon ace Jelena Prokopcuka.

Russians figure prominently in the Marathon, led by Albina Ivanova, Alevtina Biktimirova, and Natalya Volgina. But Italy’s Bruna Genovese, with her 2:25:28 personal best at the Boston Marathon last April, arrives in arguably the finest form.

The battle for the first steeplechase title appears to be between Pole Wioletta Janowska, who has improved markedly to 9:17.15, and the Russian trio of Lyubov Ivanova (9:21.94), Tatyana Petrova (9:22.96) and Yelena Sidorchenkova (9:27.25). All four have produced personal bests this season, while Alesia Turava of Belarus (9:26.23) is expected to be in the mix as well.

In the Hurdles, it’s Kallur and Halkia

After Golden League wins against strong fields in Paris and Rome, the latter with a personal best 12.52, Susanna Kallur is primed to join her more decorated compatriots, perhaps turning that "Fab Four" to a "More-Fab Five". Her stiffest challenge may come from Germany’s Kirsten Bolm, Spanish veteran and defending champion Glory Alozie, and the rapidly improving Adrianna Lamalle of France, who has run 12.67 this season, the fastest in Europe behind Kallur and Bolm.

Over the full-lap, Greek heroine Fani Halkia hasn’t quite reached the form that propelled her to her Olympic title in Athens two years ago, but the 27-year-old has managed to come back from her injury lay-off and find herself well ahead of her fellow European competitors. With her 53.71 season’s best, she's more than half a second faster than Russian Yevgeniya Isakova and Ukraine’s Tetyana Tereshchuk-Antipova, and clearly the woman to beat.

In the 20Km Race Walk, Russians Olga Kaniskina (1:26:02) and Irina Petrova (1:26:14), and Ryta Turava (1:26:11) from Belarus are nearly minutes ahead of the rest, and should provide a keen battle through the streets of Goethenburg.

More World record threats from Lysenko and Khanafeyeva?

More Russian dominance will be on display in the Hammer Throw when Tatyana Lysenko and Gulfiya Khanafeyeva, who each reached World records of 77.41 and 77.26 respectively this year, square off yet again. Yet despite their World Record exchange, there are plenty of others in hot pursuit and gaining rapidly. Oksana Menkova of Belarus, Russian No. 3 Yekaterina Khoroshikh, and Germany’s Betty Heidler have all extended their personal bests beyond 76 metres this season, making this battle anyone’s for the taking, while another World record may not be out of the realm of possibility.

At 38, World champions Franka Dietzsch refuses to slow down. With wins in 10 of 12 competitions and a massive 68.51 world-leading heave to her credit, the German looks quite ready to reclaim the title she won in 1998. Wioletta Potepa of Poland has reached a career best 66.01 this year, while Czech Vera Cechlova (65.44) and Nicolega Grasu (65.21) of Romania are the only others in the field to have thrown beyond 65 metres.

With more than 40 centimetres separating her from her nearest challenger, World champion Nadezhda Ostapchuk remains a class apart in the Shot Put. The 25-year-old from Belarus has throw 20.56 this season, with only compatriot Natlia Khoronenko, who has reached a personal best 20.15, within striking distance. Likwise, Germany’s Petra Lammert, with a season’s best 19.64, is another class above the rest.

Four women – Christina Obergfoll and Steffi Nerius of Germany and Czechs Barbora Spotakova and Nikola Brejchova – have each thrown beyond 65 metres this season, and the podium battle should be decided among that quartet.

Competition begins Monday morning with the Heptathlon 100m hurdles.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF