Prague Preview: 10 stars to Czech out this weekend
The European Indoor Championships are this weekend in Prague, and while we’re all looking forward to the Irish team taking to the track in the Czech capital, there will be plenty to look forward to elsewhere with a range of Europe’s biggest stars also in action. Here are 10 athletes not to miss, and what we can expect from them this weekend.
- Pavel Maslak, men’s 400m
If there is one certainty of the weekend, one athlete you would go all the way to Prague just to see, then it is the indomitable indoor 400m machine that is Pavel Maslak, the reigning world indoor champion. What makes the 24-year-old’s event the one race to look forward to, above all else, is that it will be played out in front of his home crowd, who can be relied upon to create an electric atmosphere inside Prague’s O2 arena. Maslak leads the world rankings this year, courtesy of a 45.27-second performance to win his national championships in recent weeks. Assuming he goes to the line in good health, then no one will even get close to Maslak once the gun sets him alight around that first turn. It will be a bloodbath, a destruction, an exhibition of 400m running, and just like all acts of sporting brilliance, it’ll be a pleasure to watch.
- Sifan Hassan, women’s 1500m
What Pavel Maslak is to the men’s events in Prague, the Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan is to the women’s; in other words, an athlete who looks nigh-on unbeatable, short of an absolute freak occurrence. She is some six seconds faster than her closest rival, Angelika Cichocka, this year, with her 4:00.46 solo run in Stockholm last month setting a level of form that her rivals can only dream of matching. Hassan can be relied on to hit the front early in the final, and don’t expect any of her rivals to put their medal hopes at risk by chasing in vain. The race, quite simply, is for second. Expect Hassan to put on a show.
- Homiyu Tesfaye, men’s 1500m
The Ethiopian-born German will start as hot favourite for the men’s 1500m, given that he leads the world rankings this year after a 3:34.13 performance to win in Stockholm a fortnight ago. Tesfaye, 21, is as yet unproven in a championship environment, and seeing him assume the role of favourite and attempt to outwit and outrun Europe’s best in an un-paced final should be a riveting game of athletic chess. Those who should pose the biggest threat to his hopes for gold include Henrik Ingebrigsten of Norway, Chris O’Hare of Great Britain and Ilham Tanui-Ozbilen of Turkey, who are all much slower than Tesfaye on paper this year, but all boast a championship record that would make the German green with envy.
- Alina Talay, women’s 60m hurdles
A bronze medallist at the World Indoor Championships in 2012, and a silver medallist at this event in 2013, Belarusian Alina Talay will start as firm favourite for the 60m hurdles this weekend, particularly after her 7.88-second performance last month in Vienna, which ranks her third in the world this year. Her closest challenge is likely to come from Belgium’s Eline Berings, a winner at these championships in 2009, who has also dipped below eight seconds this year with a best of 7.95. It will be close, but Talay gets the verdict.
- Marcin Lewandowski, men’s 800m
In the absence of teammate Adam Kszczot, Poland’s Marcin Lewandowski will be an overwhelming favourite for the men’s 800m, and deservedly so. The 27-year-old was a silver medallist at this event in 2011, a European champion outdoors in 2010, and goes into the race with by far the fastest run this season: a 1:45.78 performance to finish third in Stockholm last month. Of his rivals, expect Irishman Mark English – the European bronze medallist last year – to put up the strongest challenge, along with Josef Repcik, Thijmen Kuipers and Kevin Lopez. Lewandowski, though, is one tough athlete, and one who will be extremely tough to beat.
- Dafne Schippers, women’s 60m
If there is one female athlete worth watching this weekend, it is the Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers, who last year showed herself as one of the best sprinters in the world with an incredible double at the European Championships in Zurich, highlighted by her 22.03-second win in the 200m. What’s more amazing, Schippers is still just 22, and better known as a heptathlete. She will square off against Germany’s Verena Sailer and Great Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith this weekend in what looks to be the race of the championships. Sailer and Asher-Smith have both run 7.12 seconds for the distance this year, but Schippers has gone quicker than both, having run 7.09 last month in Berlin. We know, too, that she can hold her composure when the pressure is at its highest. With the formidable pair she faces this weekend, she’ll certainly need to keep her head, but Schippers is up to the task.
- Renaud Lavillenie, men’s pole vault
For the IAAF World Athlete of the Year, the European Indoor Championships should be a relative formality, given that he has already soared over 6.02m this indoor season, which he did in Berlin last month. The 28-year-old is simply unbeatable in this environment. He has won gold in the pole vault at the last six European Championships, counting both outdoor and indoor, and don’t expect this weekend to produce anything but yet another title to add to his growing list of accolades. It’s unlikely, though still possible, that he’ll beat his own indoor world record of 6.16m, set last year, but watching him attempt it, long after he’s put this contest to bed, will be one of the biggest reasons to tune in to the action this weekend.
- Zusana Hejnova, women’s 800m
By far the most intriguing entrant in Prague this weekend is Zusana Hejnova, who runs in the women’s 800m. Hejnova, of course, is much better known as a 400m hurdler, an event in which she is the reigning world champion. Hejnova is entered for both the 400m and 800m this weekend, but revealed earlier this week that she will opt for the four-lap event. Earlier this year, she told European Athletics that dabbling in the 800m has come at the request of her coach. “I am not very keen on the idea,” she said, “but I trust my coach when he says that I would not run it so bad.” Hejnova ran a personal best of 2:03.60 for the distance this year and, realistically, that won’t be nearly enough to see her challenge the leading contenders this weekend, most of all race favourite Jenny Meadows. However, seeing how she fares, in front of a home crowd, in an event completely alien to her, will be fascinating.
- David Storl, men’s shot put
He may be a world champion, European champion and an Olympic silver medallist, but surprisingly, David Storl has yet to add a European indoor title to his list of achievements. That could well change this weekend, though, when the 24-year-old goes to Prague looking the most likely victor in the men’s shot put. With Poland’s Tomasz Majewski, Storl’s biggest European rival, absent, it will come as a major shock if the German behemoth is defeated, but expect home hero Tomas Stanek to mount the biggest challenge.
10. Yekaterina Koneva, women’s triple jump
The pick of the field eventers on the women’s side is Russia’s Yekaterina Koneva, who looks an overwhelming favourite for the triple jump. Koneva was world indoor champion last year in Sopot, and she will be hoping to add the European title to that this weekend. It looks almost a foregone conclusion. Koneva has jumped 14.68m already this year, which puts her at the top of the world rankings, and the only realistic challenge should come from Bulgaria’s Gabriela Petrova, who has a best of 14.55m.