Ukraine's Hanna Melnychenko celebrates her heptathlon victory (© Getty Images)
The 17th edition of the IAAF Combined Events Challenge kicks off with the Oceania Combined Events Championships in the Australian city of Melbourne on Thursday and Friday (3-4).
Fourteen meetings later, the challenge will conclude with the combined events at the Asian Games in Incheon, Korea, after stopping off in all five IAAF areas.
With 2014 the one year without a global championship in the four-year cycle, the Combined Events Challenge takes on even greater importance for the world’s top combined events exponents.
It is a mix of the traditional and famous stand-alone meetings – the Multistars, Gotzis, Kladno, Ratingen and Talence; national championships – Australia and USA; multi-sports Games – the Commonwealth and Asian Games; and continental events – European Combined Events Cup, Pan-American Combined Cup, African Championships and European Championships.
The biggest name in combined events – the USA’s world and Olympic champion Ashton Eaton, who is also the decathlon world record-holder – is having 2014 off from the decathlon and has said he will embark on a brief sojourn as a 400m hurdler. However, his life and sport partner, Brianne Theisen Eaton, has set her sights on repeating her 2013 heptathlon victory in Gotzis and winning the gold medal for Canada at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer.
If she can achieve both goals, she could be hard to beat in the challenge which is scored on the aggregate of an athlete’s best three results in the series for the year.
The challenge rankings will be determined by the addition of the best three scores achieved by an athlete in any of the 15 competitions, and this determines who will get a share of more than US$200,000 in prize money when the season ends at the Asian Games, which will be held from 26 September-3 October.
The top eight athletes ranked in the men’s decathlon and women’s heptathlon will receive prize money with the winner getting the handsome reward of US$30,000.
The 2013 challenge saw a new winner emerge in the heptathlon. Russia’s Tatyana Chernova had won three times in a row and was bidding to equal the record of the Swedish great Carolina Kluft her with four wins on the trot.
However, it was not to be.
After a modest start with 6169 points in Gotzis, Ukraine’s Hanna Melnychenko rebounded with victories in Kladno (6416), at the IAAF World Championships (6586) and at finally at the Decastars in the French town of Talence last September (6309).
This gave the world champion a comfortable 2013 challenge win over Germany’s Claudia Rath with Poland’s Karolina Tyminska right on her heels in third place.
The men’s challenge winner, Andrei Krauchanka of Belarus, by contrast with Melnychenko, had his worst result of the season in Moscow, where Melnychenko won to take an iron grip on the women’s prize but Krauchanka could finish no better than 11th in the decathlon.
Even so, his score of 8314 points, added to victories in Florence and Kladno at the beginning of the season, brought Krauchanka’s series total to 25,084 points, which was enough to withstand the late-season challenge from rivals competing in Talence.
Canada’s World Championships bronze medallist Damian Warner won in Talence, as he did in Gotzis, but finished a tantalising 104 points adrift of Krauchanka in the standings. Germany’s Pascal Behrenbruch, the 2012 European champion, won in Ratingen and finished third overall.
World and Olympic champion Eaton did not finish in Talence, leaving him with just two completed decathlons in 2013 and a long way behind the leaders.
Who will emerge to take the challenge in 2014?
Like the individual decathlons and heptathlons making up the series, the winners will be athletes who can score consistently and have the physical and mental resources to make up for a disappointing performance in one event with a personal best in the next.
Stein steps up to senior ranks
Most interest in the Oceania Combined Events Championships in the coming days will be the performance of Jake Stein in his first open national championship.
The 2011 world youth champion and 2012 world junior silver medallist turned 20 in January and already has a score of 7601 points to his name in the senior event.
If he is the top Australian finisher in Melbourne, he will earn automatic nomination to the Commonwealth Games team.
First, though, Stein must overcome the likes of the defending Oceania champion Nicholas Gerrard and his New Zealand teammate, the experienced Brent Newdick, and domestic rivals Kyle McCarthy and Kyle Cranston.
In the heptathlon, New Zealand’s Portia Bing, fifth at the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships, and Australia’s Sophie Stanwell look to be the most obvious candidates for the gold medal, with both having scores in the 5600-range this year.
The under-20 events will also serve as the selection trials for this year’s 2014 World Junior Championships and potentially could throw up an Antipodean successor to Stein in this age group on the global stage.
Len Johnson for the IAAF