Any suggestions of Nafissatou Thiam’s breakthrough to take Olympic gold being a one-off were put to bed earlier this year.
At the Hypo-Meeting in Götzis, the Belgian produced one of the greatest heptathlon scores in history, her winning tally of 7013 taking her to third on the world all-time list. Notably, in five of the seven disciplines, Thiam bettered her performance from Rio.
Her performances in the Austrian town revealed several things. The first was that she had clearly worked on her speed over the winter; Thiam no longer lags behind in the 100m hurdles and is at the quicker end of the 13-second range. She is also closing in on 24 seconds in the 200m.
Thiam’s jumps are also as good as they have ever been. The high jump remains a huge banker event for her and she appears to be on the brink of something special in the long jump.
And her throws are better than ever. In fact, her javelin throwing – like her high jumping – is better than any heptathlon global medallist in history. Her national record throw of 59.32m in Götzis has only been bettered within a heptathlon by javelin world record-holder Barbora Spotakova.
Aside from her improvements in the individual disciplines, Thiam’s Götzis performance also showed that she is nowhere near her lifetime peak. Five personal bests from seven events suggests that this is an athlete who still has plenty of room for improvement.
But as big a favourite as she is, Thiam can’t afford to make too many mistakes in London because the standard of women’s combined events is currently at an all-time high.
Thiam was one of three women to score in excess of 6800 points in Götzis. And behind the top trio, the marks for fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth were the highest in history for those positions.
Germany’s Carolin Schäfer and Latvia’s Laura Ikauniece-Admidina provided Thiam’s toughest opposition at the Hypo-Meeting. Consistency is Schäfer’s biggest weapon. She might not put up the monster results in the individual events like Thiam does, but the 2008 world U20 champion is solid in every discipline and often performs close to her best in each one.
Schäfer set four PBs in Götzis en route to her lifetime best score of 6836. She followed it one month later with a 6667 triumph in Ratingen, setting three more PBs along the way.
But although she is super consistent, she is not infallible. Schäfer exited the 2015 World Championships heptathlon after three fouls in the long jump. History nearly repeated itself in Rio last year but she managed to salvage a 6.20m leap on her final attempt. And in Götzis this year, she pulled out a 6.57m PB after two fouls.
Ikauniece-Admidina, meanwhile, is the silent assassin. The world bronze medallist often goes unnoticed during the first half of the heptathlon, but rockets up the leader board on day two as the long jump, javelin and 800m are three of her best events. The 25-year-old has set PBs in four individual events this year and is a reliable championships performer, so can be expected to come close to or even surpass her 6815 national record from Götzis.
Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson also produced a lifetime best in Götzis. In most other years, her score of 6691 would have been enough for a podium finish, even a victory, but on this occasion she finished fourth.
For her, though, the Hypo-Meeting was a litmus test for her new set-up, having relocated to France over the winter to be trained by Bertrand Valcin, coach to Olympic decathlon silver medallist Kevin Mayer. The verdict was a positive one as Johnson-Thompson was close to her best in almost every discipline and showed improved consistency in the events in which she had previously struggled.
While these four appear to be the most likely medal contenders in London, with the current depth being what it is, there are many others who cannot be discounted.
Take, for example, Anouk Vetter. The Dutch woman went into last year’s European Championships with a season’s best of 6282, but came away with the gold medal and a national record of 6626. She’ll be heading into this year’s major championships with a season’s best of 6497.
Germany’s Claudia Salman-Rath has finished close to the medals at several major championships. This winter, in her first stint focusing solely on the long jump, she was rewarded with the European indoor bronze medal and a PB of 6.94m. A strong second-day performer like Ikauniece-Admidina, Salman-Rath scored a PB of 6580 in Götzis this year.
Kendell Williams and Erica Bougard pushed one another to lifetime bests of 6564 and 6557 at the US Championships in June. Both sub-13-second performers in the 100m hurdles, they’ll be bagging their big points early in the competition.
Although they most likely won’t challenge for a medal, European U20 champion Alina Shukh and 2015 world U18 champion Geraldine Ruckstuhl will make their World Championships debut. The pair recently moved to sixth and seventh on the world U20 all-time list with respective scores of 6381 and 6357 at the European U20 Championships.
Their time to shine, though, is in the not-too-distant future. For now, the spotlight is firmly focused on Thiam.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF