This year’s European Athletics Indoor Championships will mean different things to different athletes.
For France’s Kevin Mayer and Dutch star Femke Bol, it’s a chance to again stamp their supremacy over their continental rivals.
For Türkiye’s Kayhan Ozer and Tugba Danismaz, it’s a chance to give many in the host nation a reason to smile, just weeks after the dual earthquakes that left a trail of such seismic devastation.
All four were brimming with excitement during the pre-event press conference at the Atakoy Arena on Thursday, with the 45,000 victims of the earthquake and the ongoing relief effort foremost in their thoughts.
“I think we have to come here and have it in mind,” said Mayer. “It was a big tragedy and we have in our (thoughts) the Turkish people. As athletes, all we can do is represent as best we can on the track, and honour the victims.”
Mayer is targeting his third European indoor heptathlon title, having won gold in 2017 and 2021, the former the still-standing European record of 6479 points.
In training over the winter, his focus has been on sprinting. “When you’re good in sprints, [the performance is] always good in the other events so I’m always focused on that,” he said.
The two-time world decathlon champion admitted his training is “not good in all events,” but was still confident of a strong showing. “I’ve no injuries, I think I’m ready for this weekend. I love championships, wearing my country’s shirt is something really special, and I can’t wait for it.”
Mayer’s training is still overseen, as it was last year, by Alexander Bonacorsi, and after this weekend’s championships, he’s planning a training camp in Miami to prepare for the outdoor season. “I’m really focused on the summer,” he said. “I’m going to take it slowly, growing and growing in shape.”
Make no mistake, though, he wants gold this weekend.
At the age of 31, the world decathlon record-holder knows that once his body is in full working order, victory can always be on the cards: “With my experience, what I need to have is health. If I am healthy, I can win. I have so much experience in each event; I’m confident everyone will be good if there is no problem physically.”
And is he fully healthy now? “Yeah,” he smiled.
His biggest rival is likely to be Switzerland’s Simon Ehammer, who leads the 2023 European list with 6292 points. “There’s a lot (of strong rivals),” said Mayer. “I think indoors, we can have some surprises with the young guys. I’m focused on Ehammer but there are others, and I want to use this adversity to make myself better. I feel confident because my PB is better than the others, but you never know.”
Few events will feature a favourite quite as pronounced as in the women’s 400m where Bol looks poised to claim her second straight European indoor title.
After smashing the 400m indoor world record with 49.26 at the Dutch championships in Apeldoorn, the 23-year-old appears a cut above her rivals.
At the press conference she said she believed the previous world indoor 400m record, held by Jarmila Kratochvilova at 49.59, was possible at the Dutch Indoor Championships, but that the most she expected from the race was 49.50. “It was amazing,” she said. “It was such a great atmosphere to run in at home.”
Did it convince her to gravitate away from her specialist event to the flat 400m? “No, I still love my hurdles,” she said. “And I love to see it coming together over 400m.”
Bol said the Atakoy Arena has a “great track” and as for her expectations for this weekend, she gave a typically understated prediction: “I think it will be good.”
For Ozer, meanwhile, this weekend will be about far more than simply performance. The 24-year-old finished seventh in the 60m at the 2021 edition in Torun, and he got 2023 off to the perfect start with a PB of 6.58 in Jablonec, Czech Republic. But his world, like so many others here, has not been the same ever since the two earthquakes that struck the south of Türkiye on 6 February.
Two days earlier, Ozer went for coffee with a friend of his, but that same friend lost their life in the tragedy. Ozer hails from Adana, a city of 1.7 million which is located about 160km from the epicentre of the first earthquake.
“In Adana, 300 people (died) and 25 buildings were down,” said Ozer. “My family (went) to a mountain home, staying there, because my sister is so scared. She doesn’t want to go home. Every family is like this.”
In the first week after the disaster, Ozer did not train and he didn’t plan to compete at these championships during that time, but he soon reconsidered. “After the second week I said, ‘Okay, I will run for the country, run for friends,’ and now I feel better,” he said.
His goal on Saturday is to make the 60m final. “And when you run in the final, you should take a medal,” he said. “I’m so excited for this championship, I’ve been in great shape, I’m ready. This season I ran 6.58, and I want 6.55, my national record. This is enough for a medal.”
The host nation has another legitimate medal contender in the women’s triple jump, where Tugba Danismaz is ranked third via her season’s best of 14.13m. For the 23-year-old, having the chance to compete for a medal in front of her home crowd – especially given events of the past month – is one she is relishing.
“As soon as I heard the championships will be in Istanbul, my goal was to be here with the audience and be in the Turkish gear,” she said. “I’m so excited, and I wish success to all the athletes.”
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics