A look ahead at the most likely British victories at the 24th European Athletics Championships in Berlin, Germany.
By Reece Maycock
In 2012 the regularity of the European championships changed from every four years, to every two. In the three contests since then (including the 2012 Helsinki version) Great Britain and Northern Ireland have supplied wildly different teams, with dramatically varying levels of success. In Helsinki there were 4 golds,two years later in Zurich an astonishing 12 (5 more than the total number of medals won in the Finnish capital). In Amsterdam two years back 5 titles were won and 16 overall medals achieved. However before we get ahead of ourselves and declare this championship a British whitewash it’s worth noting that non-Olympic year Europeans have not always provided GBR with an abundance of gold (Barcelona 2010 – 6; Gothenburg 2006 – 1). So where should we pitch our hopes? Does sending our largest ever team mean the domination of Zurich will be repeated? Or will the retirements of Jess, Mo, Greg and Christine hold up a mirror to the cracks in British Athletics?
Let me take you through the 13 (yes, you read that correctly) golds I think are possible in the German capital:
Dina Asher-Smith and Zharnel Hughes have both hit landmarks this year. Asher-Smith has broken her own British record and recorded two sub-11 clockings, in addition to edging out Olympic champion Elaine Thompson for commonwealth bronze in Australia. Hughes went under 10 seconds in Jamaica earlier this year with an equal European leading mark of 9.91. He has since run under 10 seconds twice, both at the London diamond league in his final races before this championship. Both will start as favourites in the 100m with Hughes looking to win his first individual senior title, following disqualification after initially having captured the commonwealth 200m title in April. Asher-Smith will also be contesting the 200m and will start as slight favourite over reigning double world champion Dafne Schippers. The Dutch superstar is yet to fire on all cylinders this year but it would be foolish and disrespectful to disregard her. Her 200m championship final times in each of the past four seasons are: 22.03 (2014 Euros); 21.63 (2015 Worlds); 21.88 (2016 Olympics) and 22:05 (2017 Worlds). All four of those times are faster than Asher-Smith has ever run. Beating Schippers to successfully defend her 200m title from 2016 would surely be the British record holder’s greatest achievement to date.
With a 44.63 clocking, Matthew Hudson-Smith heads the European rankings over 400m. A silver medalist four years ago, Hudson-Smith will go up against Spain’s Oscar Husillos and 400m hurdles World champion Karsten Warholm of Norway, in a bid to win a first senior title. It is feasible that all three national records may be broken in Berlin (GBR 44.36 – Iwan Thomas); (SPA 44.69 – Bruno Hortelano); (NOR 44.87 – Karsten Warholm). Hudson-Smith is getting better with every race and has identified the 21-year-old British record as a target for this season. Husillos has carried his outstanding indoor form (where he briefly became world indoor champion before disqualification) outdoors, and Warholm has broken his 400m hurdles NR in almost every race since that flat 400m run. The European record of 44.33 set way back in 1987 by (East) Germany’s Thomas Schonlebe might be living on borrowed time.
Up until a few weeks ago you’d have said that Lynsey Sharp was having an atrocious season. Out in the heats of the commonwealth games, outside of the top two at the British trials, an in poor-taste rant against Laura Muir and a series of below par runs well outside two minutes. However, two runs inside that benchmark in quick succession and a decent placing at the London diamond league and she finds herself heading to Berlin ranked 2nd in Europe. European champion six years ago in Helsinki, Sharp is presented with an outstanding opportunity to win a second title. With Muir eventually choosing not to double-up, Hassan opting for the 5000m and Selina Buchel and Shelayna Oskan-Clarke looking out of sorts, European leader Renelle Lamote is the only real threat (on paper). Despite having excellent personal bests, neither Lamote nor Sharp are particularly convincing competitors, but I expect the Brit to emerge victorious in Berlin.
Laura Muir and Laura Weightman will surely complete a British 1-2 in the 1500m, most likely joined on the podium by Poland’s Sofia Ennaoui. Muir would have started as overwhelming favourite for both the 800m and 1500m but a slight niggle after the London diamond league means she will only run the event she is most known for. Weightman hasn’t contested many 1500m’s in 2018, choosing to focus on the 5000m for the first part of the season, which resulted in the third major medal of her career. However, the races she has run indicate that a PB is on the cards and her excellent final 100m at last year’s World championships will give her belief that if she is close enough to Muir in the home straight then anything is possible. Muir admitted that she went too hard too early in the mile at the London diamond league so I expect her to wait until 300/250m to go before kicking, but in truth she can win this race in any which way she wants.
There are two possible field gold’s with all of our long jump women capable of winning their first career title and Nick Miller talented enough to beat anyone in the world. Jazmin Sawyers will start as the most unlikely of the three long jumpers to win gold, yet she edged Shara Proctor out of the top two at the British trials and has commonwealth and European medals already. Proctor, who in turn beat Sawyers and Ugen at the London diamond league looks to have finally recaptured the form that took her so close to becoming World champion in 2015. A crisis of confidence followed that magnificent national record in the Bird’s Nest Stadium but her recent 6.91m and continued improvement with every meet indicates that something special could be on the cards. World leader and newest member of the 7 metre club Lorrain Ugen won both the British trials and the Stockholm diamond league, but has also had some poor competitions in between. The bookies have her a slight favourite over reigning European champion, indoors and out, Ivana Spanovic (6.99m this season), an athlete with a plethora of medals and titles. Ugen may have a better jump to her credit this year, but Spanovic is the defending champion. All are extraordinary athletes but to suggest it will be Ivana vs. the Brits would be insulting to the stellar field. I believe a British 1-2-3 is possible, but with equal probability I also believe a British 4-5-6 is feasible. Malaika Mihambo and Sosthene Moguernara (both German) are world class and will not be beaten with anything less than 6.90m+ jumps. The women’s long jump is arguably the event with the highest standard at these championships, possibly slightly ahead of the men’s 1500m. Whoever becomes the European champion will surely have to produce the jump of their life.
Nick Miller won’t start as the bookies favourite for the men’s hammer, but he start as mine. His season’s best and British record are over a metre down on the European leading market of Wojciech Nowicki and almost a metre down on hammer superstar Pawel Fajdek’s best mark. However, he showed incredible focus and strength when becoming the first Brit ever to throw over 80m to win the commonwealth title in April and has spent most of the time since then in heavy training. If he has continued to build and tapered correctly there’s no reason to think that he could not improve on that 80.26m. It is likely it will take that to win but Nick seems to grow in confidence each season and he may well topple the traditional Polish powerhouses in the years to come. Sixth at the world’s last year, a medal will be the minimum expectation.
The final Brit with a realistic chance individual gold is everyone’s favourite hurdler: Eilidh Doyle. It’s quite remarkable that despite being injured and therefore not running between her 3rd successive commonwealth games silver medal and the London diamond league that Doyle will head to Berlin as the marginal favourite. Especially given that European leader (over both 400m flat and 400m hurdles) Lea Sprunger, and double World champion Zusanna Hejnova will be competing. Hejnova has not quite taken off this season, equal 4th on the European list with 55.16. Sprunger has had two excellent indoor seasons back-to-back, but on both occasions ended up without a medal. The lactic sniper got the better of her in the final of last year’s European indoors and she was disqualified in the semi’s of this year’s World indoors. The speed demonstrated on the boards has resulted in a fantastic outdoor 400m 50.52 PB but her 54.79 over the hurdles suggests the technical transition has not been quite so smooth. Doyle, on the other hand, picked up her first individual global medal with bronze at the world indoors, followed by silver at the commonwealth games in 54.80, just a fraction behind Sprunger’s European lead. The 2014 European champion’s two races since returning from injury (56.18 and 55.71) won’t worry the Swiss or Czech athletes, but what might be a cause for concern is her assertion that she has completed the training necessary whilst injured and has just been unable to race. Expect all three of them to run under 55 seconds in the final, should they navigate the semis.
All four of the British relay quartets will expect gold in Berlin. The men’s lineup will most probably feature 3/4 of the team that won World gold last year, with Hughes expected to come in for Danny Talbot, who is spending this season out injured. Likewise Desiree Henry will be missing from the women’s 4×100 team, silver medalists in London. Imani Lansiqout/Bianca Williams are likely to join Dina Asher-Smith, Asha Phillip and Daryll Neita. Neither team should be troubled too much by the speed of their competitors.
The 4x400m relays will be more difficult to win. Both men and women have taken their largest squads ever as a result of the novel decision by the organiser’s to have the relays in the middle of the athletics program, swinging the relay battles mightily in favour of the countries with the most depth, i.e. GBR.
The 4x400m heats take place the morning after the women’s 400m semi-finals and the men’s 400m hurdles final. That possibly rules out Anika Onoura, Amy Allcock and Laviai Nielsen, all of whom will expect to be competing in those semis and hoping to progress to the final. It will also probably rule out Jack Green, unless he does not make the hurdles last eight. The women’s 400m hurdles final and men’s 400m final also take place on the same day as the heats. Not only has that ended Lea Sprungers bid for a 400/400mh hurdle double, it also rules out at least Doyle and Hudson-Smith, possibly Meghan Beesley and Dwayne Cowan. The relay finals themselves occur just after the women’s 400m final, likely wiping out all three of the British women selected in the individual event (mentioned above). It really is bizarre. What this does mean however is that despite having the third best men’s squad (behind Belgium and Spain) GBR will probably win the men’s title. This is because the two other countries simply do not have the same depth. Their first four are probably better, man-for-man, than our team (with the exception of Hudson-Smith) but we have Cameron Chalmers, Sebastian Rodger, Owen Smith, Martyn Rooney, Delano Williams and Rabah Yousif all ready to run a leg each in any given combination. The Borlees are going to have to run the individual 400ms and both legs of the relay, and Hortelano (200m) and Husillos (400m) will have to do the same for Spain.
The British women’s team is good enough to win with or without this bizarre set-up, but their closest rivals, Poland and France, have been weakened by the timetabling. It does mean the final may be the unusual line-up of Doyle, Beesley, Zoey Clark and Mary Abici, with Emily Diamond, Kirsten McAslan and Finette Agyapong all possibly featuring in the heats.