Our Colin Hart delves into the World Athletics Championships – will British heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson make it onto the podium?
The sprinters, middle distance and distance athletes will, as usual, emerge as the superstars at the World Athletic Championships next month in Doha.
Starting on September 27, this ten-day festival of track and field will undoubtedly provide a thrilling dress rehearsal for next year’s main event, the Tokyo Olympics.
But despite all the exciting talent that will be on offer, for me the highlight is going to be a nail-biting two day heptathlon battle between Belgium’s Nafi Thiam and our own Katarina Johnson-Thompson.
Thiam, the 25 year old reigning Olympic, world and European champion with a PB of 7,013pts will understandably start as a firm favourite to retain the title she won in London two years ago.
But Johnson-Thompson has made a major breakthrough this season when she increased her PB to 6,813pts, thrashing a first class field in Gotzis in May.
She cruised majestically to victory and was winning by such a large margin she could have strolled home in 800 metres – the final of the seven events.
But Katarina was determined to break through the 6,800pts barrier that has been eluding her for so long.
She stormed through the opening lap in 59.41 secs and the second lap in 68.87 secs, crashing onto the track completely exhausted after crossing the line where she remained motionless for nearly five minutes.
After she had recovered, Katarina said: “I’m so happy I can say I’m over 6,800pts. It’s been a dream of mine so hopefully it will just go up from here. Now I just need medals.
“I was very sick after the 800. I didn’t think I would get to the line. I thought the stretcher would have to come to get me.”
An indication of how close the Thiam-Johnson-Thompson clash is likely to be came at Birmingham’s recent Diamond League meeting.
They both took part in the long jump and though Thiam won, breaking her national record with a leap of 6.86 metres, the Liverpool girl was just one centimetre behind her.
Katarina, the Commonwealth heptathlon champion, though beaten into second place by Thiam at last year’s Berlin Europeans, was only 57 points in arrears.
Unfortunately, Johnson-Thompson has never achieved her obvious potential in a global championships. And she has even been accused of being a choker.
Certainly her record isn’t good. At the London Olympics she could only finish 14th and four years later in Rio she had improved to sixth. While at her two previous worlds, Moscow 2013 and London two years ago she was fifth on both occasions.
But since then she has made major changes to her life. She took the decision to leave the comforts of home to live and train under coach Bertrand Valcin, in Montpellier.
It certainly seems to have paid off. She has improved considerably since she went to France though she admits she suffers from imposter syndrome.
That is a condition that causes a fear of being exposed as a fraud. Katarina said: “I don’t know what it will take not to feel like this – I’ll just know when it happens.”
But certainly after her performances in Gotzis and Birmingham she seems to be far more positive and self-assured. She said: “I feel so much more confident now about being in a good place in Doha.
“Obviously Nafi has stepped up her game as well. So I’m going to have to step up the javelin or something else.”
Thiam and Johnson-Thompson can hardly be described as close but, like all sporting rivals, they have tremendous respect for each other’s ability.
Nafi said “Away from competition we don’t really see each other. If we do see each other in the bus or at the hotel we are going to talk.
“Each athlete is different. But when I’m in competition it’s really hard for me to get out of it and socialise.”
Katarina appears to be mentally very much stronger than she has been in the past and she no longer panics if she fouls a jump or throw.
Coach Valcin said: “On the evidence of Gotzis there are no limits – you can believe it.”
I expect Nafi and Katarina to be slugging it out, toe-to-toe, in each of the seven disciplines like championship boxers.
Much will depend who is able to cope best with the suffocating heat in the Qata capital.
The average September temperature is a scary 102 degrees. Competition will be held in the so-called cool of the evening but the temperature will still be close to 90 degrees.
Whatever happens, I expect to see Katarina standing on the rostrum at the end of hostilities.
She can take heart that overwhelming favourites don’t always win, as Anthony Joshua found out when he lost his world heavyweight titles to massive underdog Andy Ruiz in New York recently.
Will Coleman be allowed to race?
Christian Coleman, the fastest man in the world this year, is alleged to have missed three drugs tests and could be barred from next month’s world championships in Doha.
The 23 year old American, whose 9.79sec PB makes him the seventh fastest on the all-time list, is a firm favourite to win the gold medal on September 28.
But Coleman is now facing a two year ban which would also prevent him racing at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Coleman may have perfectly legitimate reasons why he missed the tests, but so far he hasn’t responded to the allegations.
Ironically, if Coleman is found guilty, teammate Justin Gatlin will be the new favourite to win the Blue Riband event in Doha.
Gatlin has served two drug bans, and sections of the London crowd booed him when he won the world title in Stratford two years ago.
Coleman, who pulled out with an injury from Birmingham’s recent Diamond League meeting, was full of praise for his mentor Gatlin in an interview with The Times.
He said: “I think he is an honest and a fierce competitor. I’m happy that he was able to go through tough times early in his career and still be able to compete.
“I feel the sport has done a really good job in cracking down on drug taking. All I can do is hope that every time I step on the line everyone else is clean.”
I hope those words don’t turn round and kick Coleman in the teeth.