Euros Men's Preview

European Championships – Men’s preview
Friday 4 August 2006
Gothenburg, Sweden - 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 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 and international stars, all of whom have targeted this competition for more than a year, anything short of victory would be a brutal disappointment.

Christian Olsson improves to 17.40 in Prague
(Hasse Sjogren/Deca)

Olsson’s return

When Olympic champion Christian Olsson returned to action this year after a string of surgeries, there was a great deal of speculation as to how the 26-year-old would bounce back after 21 months away from Triple Jump runway. With seven wins in eight competitions, capped by a 17.62m leap in Lausanne, he has quickly dispelled any doubts about his status as the man to beat as he sets out to defend the title he won in Munich four years ago.

Commonwealth Champion Philips Idowu tops the cast of challengers. The Briton followed up his season’s best 17.50 leap at the UK championships with a somewhat disappointing 17.06 effort in London, but reiterated before and afterwards: “Gothenburg is the focus this year.” Danila Burkenya (17.42) leads the Russian charge while Greek Dimitrios Tsiamis, who surprised with a 17.55 PB at the European Cup First League match at home in Thessaloníki, may be an outside threat as well.

Ronald Pognon (FRA) powers away to 100m win in Malaga
(AFP / Getty Images)

Holm chasing another elusive title

Less than a month ago, Stefan Holm admitted he was lacking the technical form to be considered a threat to claim his first European outdoor title. But that changed for the Olympic champion last week in London when he soared over 2.34m, just two centimetres shy of his personal best, and the highest clearance in the world this season.

Yet in this event where the podium finishes can be anything but predictable, Holm will face some stiff competition in his attempt to move up a step from his finish four years ago. Four others have cleared at least 2.32 – Russians Ivan Ukhov, defending champion Yaroslav Rybakov and Andrey Silnov, along with Czech Svatoslav Ton - and another four have bettered 2.31 including Swede Linus Thornblad. All are strong prospects for gold, though Ukhov, who has three wins with leaps of 2.32 or better, has been the most consistent.

Stefan Holm clearing 2.30m in Turin
(Lorenzo Sampaolo)

Obikwelu’s double ambitions

But obviously, Olsson and Holm won’t be hogging the spotlight. In the men’s sprints, Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu, the reigning champion and Olympic silver medallist in the 100m, has his eyes firmly set on a double dash victory. His first stop is the 100m where he’s hoping to become just the third repeat winner. With season’s bests of 10.03 and 20.18, he is a few steps faster than his nearest opponent, namely Ronald Pognon of France.

Pognon’s best finish came before a home crowd in the Paris leg of the Golden League, where he was a distant third in 10.11. In Pognon’s favour could be his momentum, as he’s improved virtually race-to-race in his approach to Gothenburg.

Ivan Heshko (UKR) celebrates his 1500m win - Malaga
(AFP/Getty Images)

Should Obikwelu’s ambitious undertaking succeed – he was second in the 200m four years ago in Munich - he’d become the first since Italy’s Pietro Mennea took his double in 1978.

After his 10.07 in Gateshead in early June, Dwain Chambers is the second fastest among Europeans this year, and appears as the top British hope. But a recent injury that knocked him out of the Norwich Union London Grand Prix race on 28 July leaves a big question mark next to the Briton. In the half lap, Swede Johan Wissman (20.50 this season) and Briton Marlon Devonish (20.53) lead the chase against Obikwelu and Pognon.

The French duo of Leslie Djhone and Marc Racquil, with 44.91 and 45.01 bests this season, are nearly three-tenths of a second faster than the rest of the field, and are expected to vie for the top spot. They have produced a pair of performances quicker than the best effort of next fastest, British champion Tim Benjamin. Belgian Cedric van Branteghem has been consistent in the mid 45 range, and is among Belgium’s brightest medal hopes.

Marc Raquil (FRA) brings home 4x400m win - Malaga
(Getty Images)

Milkevics, Heshko the chased in the middle distances

With Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy taking the summer off from major competition, the role of favourite will fall on the shoulders of Latvian record holder Dmitrijs Milkevics.
The 24-year-old has raced consistently well throughout the summer, lowering his personal best to a very respectable 1:43.67 in Athens, where he finished third. He is the only European - besides Borzakovskiy - this year to dip under 1:44. Behind him, a quartet – including Dutch hope Bram Som and Borzakovskiy’s training partner, Dmitriy Bogdanov – have raced under 1:45.

Ivan Heshko has been the class metric miler this season among Europeans, and is the man to beat in the 1500m. The World Indoor champion clocked 3:31.08 in Paris last month to defeat perhaps the finest field assembled this season. Among the challengers are the strong Spanish trio led by Juan Carlos Higuero, who clocked a PB 3:31.57 for fourth in Rome, and ahead of Heshko. Portugal’s Rui Silva, the Olympic bronze medallist and third four years ago, has proven credentials in big races, and is expected to be in the hunt despite a more modest 3:34.00 season’s best. Should Mehdi Baala succeed in overcoming his early season injury woes to successfully defend his title, he would become just the second repeat winner. The other was former World record holder Steve Cram.

Stefano Baldini en route to his third place finish at the 2006 Stramilano
(Lorenzo Sanpaolo)

Spain set to figure prominently in the distances

In every distance from the 3000 metre Steeplechase to the Marathon, Spaniards are poised to play a key role. In the 5000 and 10,000m, they’ll be led by Juan Carlos de la Ossa, who improved his PB to 13:09.84 this season, and is the fastest this year in the 10,000 field. In the shorter race, Alistair Cragg (13:08.97), Ireland’s strongest medal hope of these championships, and Briton Mo Farah (13:09.40) clocked career bests in Huesden late last month, and appear ready to peak in Gothenburg. Six-time European Cross Country champion Sergey Lebid skipped last spring’s World Cross Country Championships, he said, to focus primarily on these championships where he’ll contest the 10,000m. Will the Ukrainian finally find the recipe to convert his cross country success onto the track?

As always, the Marathon is the most difficult to “predict,” but if big race experience counts for anything, then Italy’s Olympic champion Stefano Baldini will be difficult to beat. Virtually always near the top of the heap in the world’s premiere marathons, the 35-year-old Baldini, who won this title in 1998, continues to improve. At April’s Flora London Marathon, he lowered his own national record to 2:07:22, marginally slower than this year’s fastest European, Spaniard Julio Rey, who clocked a 2:06.52 national record of his own in Hamburg.

Ladji Doucouré (FRA) - Malaga
(Getty Images)

Defending champion Janne Holmen of Finland, who hasn’t contested a marathon yet this year, doesn’t have history on his side. Only one athlete, Italy’s Gelindo Bordin, has managed to defend the title. The only thing somewhat predictable is that it the race won’t be lighting fast. Only twice has the winner dipped below 2:11.

Five men in the steeplechase field have run 8:15 or faster this season; the three quickest, Antonio David Jimenez (8:11.55), Jose Luis Blanco (8:12.86) and Cesar Perez (8:13.06) are Spaniards and each has produced a personal best this season. Frenchman Bob Tahri, the former European record holder, and Simon Vroeman, the continent’s current standard bearer, look to figure prominently, as does Swede Mustafa Mohamad, who lowered his career best to 8:14.67 a few weeks ago in Stockholm. Jimenez and Vroeman finished 1-2 in Munich.

Hurdles - Post-Jackson era to begin, Iakovakis to put his European dominance to the test

Andrew Howe long jumping in Malaga
(Getty Images)

When Colin Jackson decided to wrap up his illustrious career soon after winning his fourth straight high hurdles title in 2002, the race was on to find his continental successor. With a 13.19 to his credit, this year’s fastest is Stanislav Olijar, the Latvian who finished second to Jackson in Munich and has since established himself among the chief Europeans in the event. But the continent has also produced a World champion when Frenchman Ladji Doucoure took gold in Helsinki last summer. Despite some injury setbacks, Doucoure has run 13.21 this year, setting up what should be a fine face-off. Another half dozen, led by German Thomas Blaschek, have shown 13.30-13.45 form this season, and should battle for the remaining podium positions.

Following his 47.82 national record in Osaka in May, Periklis Iakovakis firmly set the standard for the event in Europe this summer, and nobody’s been able to come remotely close. The 27-year-old Greek underscored his continental dominance with a 48.08 runner-up finish in Lausanne last month, along with a 48.33 at the Super Grand Prix in Athens. In all three races, he was second to World champion Bershawn Jackson. Frenchman Naman Keita, the Olympic bronze medallist, has been closest, but with his 48.95 best this season and primarily lodged in low 49 territory, he’s still more than a second slower than the favoured Iakovakis.

Jumps - Lobinger, Howe the most consistent

Rutger Smith of the Netherlands celebrates putting 21.29m in the men’s Shot Put final
(Getty Images)

Eight men have bettered 5.80m this season in the Pole Vault, with German Tim Lobinger, who brings a season’s best of 5.90m to Gothenburg, the most consistent. With teammates Fabian Schulze (5.81) and Lars Borgeling (5.80), Germany will be well represented. Local hopes will ride on last winter’s revelation, Alhaji Jeng, the World indoor silver medallist who has reached a personal best 5.80 outdoors. But with another seven vaulters at 5.70 or better, the competition is very much anyone’s for the taking.

At Rome’s Golden Gala, Italy’s Andrew Howe thrust himself firmly into the world’s Long Jump elite with his 8.41m leap, a performance boding well for the 21-year-old’s quest to propel himself to his first major title. Howe has displayed fine consistency, with 8.29m and 8.26m leaps as well this season. Briton Greg Rutherford, still 19, produced a surprise of his own when he improved by 12 centimetres to take the British title with his 8.26m leap. Behind the continent’s big two, another four have jumped farther than 8.15 this season, making for what should be a compelling competition.

Brutal competition on tap in the throws

Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway wins Javelin Throw in Rome Golden League
(Getty Images)

Helsinki silver medallist Rutger Smith leads a quartet of Europeans who have thrown further than 21 metres in the Shot Put this year, promising a heated battle. But not far behind his 21.62m Dutch national record is Andrei Mikhnevich of Belarus, who’s reached 21.60m. Since finishing second four years ago, Dane Joachim Olsen (21.33m) has been the picture of consistency in major competitions. With the exception of the Paris 2003, Olsen has claimed medals in each global and continental indoor or outdoor championship, as well as Olympic bronze in Athens.

With a pair of Olympic and World titles in his collection, it’s nearly impossible to believe that Virgilijus Alekna has yet to win a European Championship. Undefeated in 11 competitions this year, along with a 71.08m World leading performance, this could be the Lithuanian’s time to finally capture that elusive gold to go with the silver and bronze from the previous two editions. Estonians Aleksander Tammert (70.82) and Gerd Kanter (69.58) have come closest this year, while 1998 winner Lars Riedel, with a 69.38, still looms large in the background.

No less than eight men have reached beyond 80 metres in the Hammer Throw, with Vadim Devyatovski of Belarus (82.95) and Szymon Ziolkowski (82.31) of Poland leading the pack. The centre of the hammer throwing universe is in Europe, and this will certainly be among the most hotly contested events on the programme.

Again, it’s Thorkildsen v. Pitkämäki in the Javelin Throw

Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen has thrown beyond 90 metres three times already this season, topped by yet another Norwegian national record of 91.59, also the farthest in the world, and is the clear favourite to succeed four-time winner Steve Backley.

But Finn Tero Pitkämäki, with a near-PB of 91.11 to his credit this year, appears to be ready for battle against his Scandinavian rival. The pair have split their four meetings this year, while the Finn has an 11 to eight lifetime edge over the Norwegian.

Latvian Vadims Vasilevskis joined the 90 metre club (90.43) earlier this season, but has been less consistent than the top guns, and remains a question mark. World record holder Jan Zelezny, another throws legend who has yet to win a European title, will give it one more shot before retiring after this season. He has a season’s best of 86.07, a distant fourth among the entrants.

On paper, the Decathlon is a toss up. Romain Barras of France has assembled the highest tally among Europeans this year with 8416 points, while Attila Zsivoczky of Hungary, defending champion Roman Sebrle, and German Dennis Leyckes have topped 8300.

Competition begins Monday morning, 7 August, with the qualifying in the men’s Shot Put,

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF