Nafissatou Thiam might not have competed at all this indoor season but the formidable Belgian has to begin as the favourite for the pentathlon title at the Istanbul 2023 European Athletics Indoor Championships from 2-5 March.
- Final entries for Istanbul 2023
It was largely expected that Thiam would forego the entirety of the indoor season but the 28-year-old, who completed her second Grand Slam of major heptathlon titles last year, is keen to gauge her shape after an intensive spell of training under the guidance of her new coach Michael van der Plaetsen.
In a recent interview with Sporza, Thiam said: "I'm not going to lie. After all these months of hard work, I'm curious to see where I stand.
"That's why I'm going to join the fun and compete in the pentathlon in Istanbul. I see it as the perfect opportunity to test my form, while also gathering valuable feedback for the outdoor season."
Thiam added a second world and European heptathlon gold medal to her billowing collection of accolades last summer but a third pentathlon title beckons in Istanbul after victories in Belgrade 2017 (4870 points) and Torun 2021 (4904 points).
Thiam led a Belgian one-two at the last edition of the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Torun and if she is back to full fitness, Noor Vidts could challenge - and even possibly defeat - her more esteemed compatriot on this occasion.
Vidts won the world indoor title in Belgrade last year where she took ownership of the Belgian record away from Thiam with a total of 4929 points to move to sixth on the world all-time list but her preparations for these championships have been curtailed by an untimely bout of flu.
The third protagonist for the pentathlon title is Poland’s European heptathlon silver medallist Adrianna Sulek who has made no secret of her ambitions next week. Not only does she want to win the title, the Pole has also gone on record to say that she wants to break Nataliya Dobrynska’s world indoor record of 5013 points.
Incidentally, that world record was set in the Atakoy Stadium in 2012 when Dobrynska won gold for Ukraine at the 2012 World Athletics Indoor Championships.
Also watch out for the youngest athlete in the field: the 19-year-old Saga Vanninen, the reigning world and European U20 champion in the heptathlon.
Vanninen has a best ever score of 4541 points but this total looks due for further revision. At the recent Finnish Indoor Championships, Vanninen sped to a 8.25 lifetime best in the 60m hurdles and set a massive outright lifetime best of 16.12m in the shot put.
Ehammer v Mayer for the heptathlon title?
There are a number of parallels between Nafissatou Thiam and Kevin Mayer in the context of these championships.
Like Thiam, Mayer hasn’t competed in a combined events competition since last summer and the Frenchman is also targeting his third heptathlon crown having also triumphed in 2017 and 2021 respectively.
After breaking the European record in 2017 with a still-standing mark of 6479 points, Mayer won his second title in Torun by a seemingly comfortable margin of 234 points but this doesn’t tell the full story.
Mayer led by 43 points after five events but only enjoyed an unopposed passage to the title after his young Swiss rival Simon Ehammer had the misfortune of no-heighting in the pole vault.
After winning three major silver and bronze medals in 2022, Ehammer will be seeking his first major senior title in Istanbul.
The 22-year-old looked on the cusp of winning the decathlon at the Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships but could not arrest the unrelenting second day charge from Germany’s Niklas Kaul who prised the title away from his Swiss rival with inspired performances in front of 60,000 fans in the javelin and 1500m.
Ehammer leads the 2023 European list with 6292 points - a performance made all the more impressive as Ehammer sustained a blow to his face in the pole vault - ahead of Norway’s European U20 silver medallist Sander Skotheim, the youngest athlete in the line-up at 20. Skotheim has already tallied a Norwegian record of 6255 points and improved his high jump lifetime best to 2.20m this winter.
At the other end of the experience spectrum, Spain’s Jorge Urena will be honing in on his fourth successive European indoor heptathlon medal - silver in 2017, gold in 2019, silver in 2021 - while former world decathlon silver medallist Maicel Uibo leads the Estonian triumvirate in Istanbul.
Steven Mills for European Athletics