Highlights of the 2014 European Athletics Championships in Zurich

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Fast Times in the 200 Metres Sprints

Opting to run in the 100 metres at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and coming away with a silver medal, finishing between the Jamaicans Kemar Bailey-Cole and Nickel Ashmeade, twenty-year-old Britain Adam Gemili returned in Zurich to his favoured event. Last summer at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow, Gemili broke the 20-second barrier in the 200 metres for his first time, running 19.98 on his way to the final, where he finished in fifth. The time of 19.98 was a significant improvement upon his previous personal best – 20.17, a time he set in the championship’s heats – and made him the second fastest Britain ever over the distance. John Regis retains the national record, having run 19.87 in Sestriere, Italy, back in 1994. Regis was a European 200 metres champion, and during his career achieved a silver and a bronze in the event across two World Championships: he was a top-class athlete, but Sestriere was also a meet renowned for fast times. At high altitude, over 2000 metres above sea level, in the mid-1990s the organisers of the meet enticed athletes with a Ferrari for any new world record.

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Having navigated a heat and a semi-final, in the men’s 200 metres final in Zurich, Gemili took the gold medal, finishing ahead of Christophe Lemaitre and Serhiy Smelyk, and again running a time of 19.98. Thus equalling his personal best, this makes Gemili the only Britain to have broken 20 seconds twice. More, his run in the final arguably bettered his run in Moscow last year, given the adverse conditions this time round: damp weather and a headwind of 1.6 metres per second. While his form in the heats suggested him as the likely champion, upon finishing the race Gemili turned his head and seemed especially delighted with his time, which is also the fastest ran by a European this year.

Gemili is one of the most fluid athletes over the distance, and possesses the potential to challenge the world’s elite. He can go faster still. An exceptional bend runner, his bend was arguably smoother in the semi-final, where he finished with a time of 20.23, but only after shutting down entirely over the last 50 metres, preserving his energy with the race already won. He added to the medal haul which he has accrued over the summer on the final day of competition in Zurich, by taking the last leg and leading the British team to gold in the 4×100 metres relay.

In the women’s 200 metres, Dafne Schippers won her second gold medal of the championships, having taken the 100 metres title earlier in the week. She obliterated the rest of the field in the 200 metres final, running a time of 22.03: a new Dutch national record, and the best time in the world this year by some margin. Establishing so thoroughly her credentials as a world-class sprinter, Schippers’ performance in the 200 metres final was a strong contender for the performance of the Zurich championships.

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A World and European Junior champion in the heptathlon across 2010 and 2011, and a World Championships bronze medallist in the event last year in Moscow, Schippers only began focusing on the sprints this season. Already accomplished in the 100 metres and the long jump, her sprint times have rapidly improved through the course of the year. She set a personal best and a Dutch national record in the 100 metres last month in Glasgow, running a time of 11.03; before improving in Zurich on the 22.34 in the 200 metres which she recorded at the same meet.

The closest anyone has come to her 22.03 this year is the 22.18 set by the American Tori Bowie in Eugene, Oregon, at the end of May. Though it is worth noting that the Americans sometimes resemble the Russians in eschewing international events for localised meets – which produce results which do not always translate to successes at major international competitions – Bowie seems like the real thing, and in fact is following a similar trajectory to Schippers, transitioning this year into the sprints having previously specialised in the long jump. Bowie is the year’s world-leader over 100 metres, having run 10.80 at the Diamond League event in Monaco last month. Still, Schippers is the best 200 metres runner in the world at this moment in time – and yet her future over the distance remains unclear.

While she obviously possesses the talent to specialise, and could compete in two years time at the Olympics in Rio for gold medals in what remain the sport’s most prestigious events, Schippers is an ardent fan of the heptathlon; and it is uncertain, at this stage, whether she will return to that event or stick with the sprints. As former heptathlete Denise Lewis concisely explained, there is the feeling that Schippers could break records in the heptathlon too – with the sticking point being the high jump, which is one of her weakest events, but one that affords a considerable number of points. A similar conundrum potentially awaits Jessica Ennis-Hill, who was running world-class times in the 100 metres hurdles in 2012 – on route to eventual Olympic glory in the heptathlon – before taking time out due to an ankle injury in 2013, and in 2014 owing to pregnancy and the birth of her first child. Ennis too, upon her return to the sport, will have to decide whether to stay with the heptathlon or look towards the sprint event.

Distance Running for a Lady and a Man

After Schippers, the Netherlands’ other star performer in Zurich was Sifan Hassan. The world-leader and favourite going into the women’s 1500 metres, she won the gold medal after a storming finish, ahead of Sweden’s Abeba Aregawi and Britain’s Laura Weightman. In the 5,000 metres, however, Sweden avenged this defeat, as Meraf Bahta held off Hassan for the title. Hassan and Aregawi both hail from Ethiopia, while Bahta was born in Eritrea – a country, incidentally but interestingly, from which there has been a marked increase in asylum seekersparticularly to northern European countries over recent months. All still in their early twenties, Hassan especially – at only twenty-one years of age – is full of potential, and should be one of the main contenders for the 1500 metres in Rio in 2016.

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At the other end of the age spectrum, Britain’s Jo Pavey backed up her outstanding 5,000 metres Commonwealth bronze with a gold medal in the 10,000 metres. Pavey took silver in the same event at the European Championships two years ago in Helsinki. The gold medal this time around was the first major gold of the forty-year-old’s long career, which has seen her consistently make world finals since her senior international debut in 1997.

In the men’s long-distance events, Mo Farah took gold in the 10,000 and 5,000 metres. Having spent the early part of the season preparing for the London Marathon, then withdrawing from the Commonwealth Games owing to injury, illness, and infection, Farah had only appeared on the track once this year prior to the 10,000 metres final. If his victory in that race seemed understandably tentative, he was more impressive at the end of the week in the 5,000 metres, kicking powerfully away from a persistent Hayle Ibrahimov over the last lap. Farah’s compatriot Andy Vernon managed a bronze behind Ibrahimov, having won silver in the 10,000 metres – ahead of Ali Kaya, whose bronze medal in a personal-best time gave Turkey their only medal of the championships.

Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad and High Drama in the Men’s Middle Distance Events

The men’s middle distance events were a world onto themselves, defined by the French runner Mehiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad. Twice a World Championships bronze medallist, twice an Olympic silver medallist, and twice a European gold medallist at the 3,000 metres steeplechase, Mekhissi-Benabbad is known as a centre of controversy as much as for his undoubted talent. Most infamously, he is a repeat offender against mascots.

After pushing over Barni somewhat playfully in Barcelona in 2010, in Helsinki in 2012 he achieved a similar feat, slapping the parcel ready to be gifted to him upon his victory out of the hands of Appy – the Helsinki mascot, apparently meant to resemble a mobile app, but looking instead like a one-pint carton of milk –  before pushing the mascot firmly in the chest. The incident drew particular condemnation because – presumably unbeknownst to Mekhissi-Benabbad – the Appy costume was being worn by a fourteen-year-old girl. Refusing to allow a year to pass between without provocation, in 2011 in Monaco Mekhissi-Benabbad fought on the track, immediately after his 1500 metres race, with his international teammate Mehdi Baala. While Baala seemed to instigate the brawl which ensued, attempting a headbutt as the two men confronted one another, both athletes were given five-month suspensions from IAAF competition – though they were allowed to compete in the year’s World Championships.

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So in Zurich as the steeplechase drew to a close, Mekhissi-Benabbad once more found himself at the head of the race, and set to claim his third European gold in the event. He was so far ahead of his competitors, in fact, as he came into the home straight, that he pulled off his vest and put it into his mouth before clearing the last jump, holding onto it as he crossed the line for apparent victory. Yet removing one’s vest is against the rules, and while he was initially shown only a yellow card by a European Athletics official, the Spanish team – whose athletes had finished in fourth and fifth – made an official complaint, which saw Mekhissi-Benabbad ultimately stripped of his title.

He returned for the 1500 metres, and won the event comfortably, pushing well ahead of his challengers at the start of the final lap before engaging profusely in celebration as he slowed towards the finish line. While this provoked further criticism regarding a perceived lack of respect for his fellow runners, Mekhissi-Benabbad was at least defended by the always engaging Brendan Foster who, making allowances for his own rebellious nature, pointed out that the athlete had crossed the line first on two occasions, to receive just one gold medal. Perhaps Mekhissi-Benabbad serves as a reminder that good sport is not always acutely sportsmanlike.

British Success Comes on the Track

With twelve gold medals and twenty-three medals in all, Britain had their best ever European Athletics Championships and finished atop the medal table for only the third time. Mo Farah’s two golds made him the most successful non-relay athlete in the history of the championships, boasting a total of five gold medals and one silver. And his triumph in the 5,000 metres on Sunday contributed to the five golds which Britain won on the last day alone.

Despite the contributions of Farah and Pavey, what proved decisive were the performances of Britain’s host of talented sprinters. Besides Gemili’s success in the men’s 200 metres, James Dasaolu came away with the victory in the men’s 100 metres, winning in a time of 10.06, while Harry Aikines-Aryeetey finished with a bronze medal in third. The men’s 400 metres saw gold and silver go to Martyn Rooney and Matthew Hudson-Smith respectively: Rooney now one of the veterans of British athletics, while Hudson-Smith is just nineteen and has emerged only during the course of the summer.

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Ashleigh Nelson grabbed a bronze for Britain in the women’s 100 metres, and twenty-year-old Jodie Williams took silver with a personal best in the women’s 200 metres, building convincingly on the same result which she achieved at the Commonwealths. And it was the British women’s 4×100 metres relay team who produced one of the performances of the championships, winning gold and setting a national record time of 42.24. Britain fought for golds too in both of the men’s relay races – the old proclivity for mistimed or fumbled baton changes seemingly left in the past.

France finished in second place in the medal table, still with twenty-three medals in total, but with nine golds to Britain’s twelve. Though still performing to a high level, their hopes of topping the medal table were scuppered as they were routinely second best across the sprints. Jimmy Vicaut’s withdrawal after his 100 metres heat left Christophe Lemaitre to carry the flag for the French in the men’s sprints, and he finished behind Dasaolu and Gemili for two silver medals. In the women’s events, Myriam Soumare managed only silver in the 100 metres, and bronze in the 200 metres. Likewise in the men’s hurdles, Pascal Martinot-Lagarde finished with bronze – behind Russia’s Sergey Shubenikov and Britain’s William Sharman – over 110 metres despite entering the competition as favourite; and in the women’s 100 metres hurdles, Cindy Billaud came second behind Britain’s victorious Tiffany Porter. In the men’s 800 metres, Pierre-Ambroise Bosse got his run disastrously wrong, and ended up finishing last after being overtaken by the eventual race winner, Poland’s Adam Kszczot. The French at least managed a gold medal in the women’s 4×400 metres relay – one of the most engaging finals of the week, as three teams finished within 0.07 seconds of one another, the French team coming through on the line over the Ukrainians and Brits.

With so much success on the track, there was a marked contrast in Britain’s performances on the field. Greg Rutherford was Britain’s only medallist in the field events, taking gold in the long jump to consolidate an excellent summer and a thorough return to form. Elsewhere there was little for Britain to get even moderately excited about. The women’s pole vaulter Holly Bleasdale, and men’s high jumper and 2012 European Champion Robbie Grabarz, were both absent through injury. Phillips Idowu, at thirty-five nearing the end of his career, was a late withdrawal from the men’s triple jump; and Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Shara Proctor similarly withdrew from the women’s long jump, leaving Britain with no representative in the event, in spite of Jazmin Sawyers attaining Commonwealth silver just several weeks ago. Goldie Sayers, Britain’s team captain for the duration of the championships, did compete in the women’s javelin, but finished in a disappointing eighth place.

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Otherwise in the field, Renaud Lavillenie in the men’s pole vault and Robert Harting in the men’s discus both retained their titles. Finland’s Antti Ruuskanen threw a huge 88.01 in the men’s javelin; while Krisztian Pars of Hungary in the men’s hammer and Andrei Krauchanka of Belarus in the decathlon achieved world-leading results. In the women’s hammer, Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk set a new world-leading and national record distance with a throw of 78.76. In the women’s long jump, France’s Eloyse Lesueur relegated Serbia’s Ivana Spanovic and Russia’s Darya Klishina to second and third. Russia also missed out – in the absence of Anna Chicherova – on gold in the women’s high jump, which saw Spain’s Ruth Beitia hold on to her European title ahead of Mariya Kuchina, while Ana Simic of Croatia took bronze.

Cooly the Cow’s Rhythm and Blues

Zurich’s mascot, Cooly the Cow, has had a busy time of things promoting the championships across the last year – making over 150 appearances at a variety of events throughout Switzerland and Europe, and meeting athletics superstars including Haile Gebrselassie and Usain Bolt. Amidst the competitive athletics on display, Cooly proved one of the highlights of the championships, remarkably agile and full of a surprisingly bold and playful humour throughout the week. Balancing one evening on the ledge in front of the first row of spectators, Cooly lost his footing, and found himself painfully straddling the advertising hoardings, before righting himself and breaking into spontaneous dance. A few days later, he made merry splashing in the steeplechase’s water pit.

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Always ready to thrust up his arms and gyrate vigorously from the hips, Cooly successfully completed attempts at the high jump and the hurdles and, perhaps most impressive of all, the pole vault. He rode a bicycle, slid across the wet track in the rain, and performed all manner of rolls and acrobatics. Finally, he challenged former 110 metres – and still current 60 metres – hurdles world record holder Colin Jackson, but after making a meal of the barriers, could only manage to finish behind Jackson in second place. Cooly has been acclaimed the best mascot to ever appear at a major championships; but thus far the heated question has been left coldly unanswered as to just who has been underneath the suit.

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Four Diamond League events remain on this year’s athletics calendar: Stockholm, on Thursday, 21 August; Birmingham, on Sunday, 24 August; back to Zurich on Thursday, 28 August; and finally Brussels, on Friday, 5 September.