Five-time European medallist Ivet Lalova-Collio will hope to lead the Bulgarian promotion charge on home soil at the European Athletics Team Championships Second League in Stara Zagora this weekend which will be streamed live on the European Athletics YouTube channel.
Including the European Cup which ran until 2008, Lalova-Collio is the most successful athlete in the competition's history across all divisions, racking up a remarkable sixteen victories stretching back to 2004. On that day in Plovdiv, Lalova-Collio set her 100m personal best of 10.77 aged just 20 to go equal second on the European all-time list before winning the 200m the following day in 22.58.
Now 37, Lalova-Collio will only contest the 200m individually in Stara Zagora and the world and European finalist will be looking to draw on all of her experience on the same track where she won a sprint double six years ago. Her biggest rival is likely to be European indoor 60m finalist Maja Mihalinec Zidar from Slovenia who will be looking to emulate Lalova-Collio in 2015 by completing the sprint double in Stara Zagora.
European discus champion Andrius Gudžius from Lithuania, who has thrown 68.62m this year, is another standout name to be competing at the Beroe Stadium as nine countries will be aiming to climb up to the First League by finishing in the top three in the overall standings.
By contrast, none of the participating nations this weekend will drop down into the Third League. Austria withdrew from the event citing coronavirus concerns and Israel also dropped out after one of their team members tested positive for coronavirus. As a consequence both teams will get automatically relegated from the Second League along with Russia who are still banned from competing internationally.
But despite a slightly depleted field, the men’s discus will be one of the highlights of the weekend. European U23 champion Kristjan Čeh is ahead of Gudzius and second on this year’s world list, with the Slovenian having broken his own European U23 record with a 69.52m effort last month. Iceland’s Guðni Valur Gudnason and Hungary’s János Huszák have also surpassed the 65 metre-line this season, making it one of the highest quality events across the programme.
Joining Lalova-Collio as a local favourite is Olympic and European silver medallist Mirela Demireva. The women's high jump could be close, with the top five athletes separated by just five centimetres based on season’s bests. Lithuania’s former European indoor champion Airine Palsyte heads this list having cleared 1.90m this year compared to 1.88m for Demireva.
Croatia’s 2014 European medallist Ana Simic, 13-time Hungarian champion Barbara Szabo, and Slovenian youngster Lia Apostolovski - who jumped 1.92m last summer - are also contenders for a full complement of points in Stara Zagora.
World University Games high jump winner Tihomir Ivanov is another perennially strong Bulgarian who triumphed in the First League in Vaasa, Finland in 2017. Three athletes managed the same feat in Sandnes in 2019 before their nations were ultimately relegated: Lithuanians Dovile Kilty (triple jump), Edis Matusevicius (javelin) and Slovakia’s Martina Hrasnova (hammer throw).
Denmark's Olympic silver medallist Sara Slott Petersen will also hope to secure maximum points in the 400m hurdles. The 2016 European champion faces - among others - 2017 Second League winner Agata Zupin of Slovenia as well as Hungary's Janka Molnar, who has improved to 56.17 in 2021.
Meanwhile, Slott Petersen and her compatriot Anna Emilie Møller make up a returning group of 12 who won when the third tier of this competition was held in Varaždin, Croatia in 2019. On her return to racing after injury, the latter lines up in the 3000m steeplechase, an event in which she has won two European U23 titles and holds the European U23 record with 9:13.46.
Another European U23 gold medallist involved is 21-year-old discus thrower Maria Tolj, the only athlete on the entry list who has thrown over 60 metres this year. The Croatian set a 63.39m lifetime best at the European Throwing Cup in Split in March and should successfully deputise for Sandra Perkovic who won two years ago with a championship record of 68.58m.
In the same month, Tina Šutej ended her long wait for a European pole vault medal by winning silver indoors in Torun. Slovenian hopes will also rest on the likes of Luka Janezic (400m), Žan Rudolf (800m) and training partners Klara Lukan and Marusa Mismas-Zrimsek in the 3000m and 5000m respectively.
From a Latvian perspective, Madara Palameika is the only female javelin thrower over 60 metres, while Elvis Misāns and Mareks Ārents stand good chances of repeating their triple jump and pole vault wins from two years ago.
Līga Velvere and Laura Igaune would say the same. The former is marginally behind the 2:01.34 new lifetime best of Hungary’s Bianka Bartha-Kéri this year in the 800m. Iguane’s 70.64m season’s best hammer throw is 26 centimetres better than the aforementioned Hrasnova.