Nafissatou Thiam performed with such power and assurance in her first competition of the season that the successful defence of her pentathlon title at the Istanbul 2023 European Athletics Championships seems very likely later today.
An opening session score of 3106 points after three events left Belgium’s Olympic, world and European champion 144 points clear of Poland’s Adrianna Sulek with the evening’s long jump and 800m to come – and in position to challenge the championship record of 5000 points set by Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson in 2015.
Indeed, even the world record of 5013, set in this same Atakoy Arena in 2012 by Ukraine’s Nataliya Dobrynska – present as a spectator – might be within reach.
After equalling her personal best of 8.23 in the 60m hurdles, high jumping to within four centimetres of her indoor best of 1.96m with 1.92m and setting a personal best of 15.54m in the shot put, the 28-year-old is 82 points ahead of her progress when she set her indoor best of 4904.
A large part of her morning’s excellence was surely down to the validity of the challenges coming in from her compatriot Noor Vidts, who surpassed her Belgian record in winning the world indoor title last year, and Poland’s exuberant rising talent Adrianna Sulek, who had spoken before competition of targeting the world record.
Both Thiam and Vidts arrived in Istanbul with questions to be answered about their form and fitness.
Thiam had spent much of the winter training in South Africa with new coach Michael Van der Plaetsen and this was the first test of her competitive mettle. So how sharp was she?
Vidts had been suffering from a virus bad enough to cause her to stay in bed for two or three days – how drained might she be? The answers came in the opening 60m hurdles, and they were, respectively, very sharp and not noticeably.
Thiam started well and was only passed close to the line, equalling her personal best of 8.23 in third place.
Vidts, who took the Belgian record from Thiam in winning the world indoor title in Belgrade last year with 4929 points, won in 8.21. In between them, credited with the same time as the winner, was Sulek, for whom this was also a personal best.
It was certainly the ideal start, and the Pole rose to the occasion in the next event, equalling her indoor personal best of 1.89m to finish second behind Thiam.
The defending champion was clearly very pleased and relieved to clear 1.92m – four centimetres below her indoor personal best – at her third attempt.
After failing at 1.92m Sulek looked momentarily stricken, putting her hands to her face, before very obviously composing herself and waving cheerfully to the crowd.
For Vidts, who has an indoor personal best of 1.84m, this event was always likely to be an exercise in damage limitation, and a best of 1.83m was far from disappointing.
A best of 14.12m in the shot put which concluded the morning session was also very respectable given she has an indoor personal best of 14.22m – but with Thiam in this kind of form, respectable wasn’t going to cut it.
Sulek maintained her own high standards with 13.89m, improving the personal best she set earlier this season by four centimetres.
But with the evening session’s long jump and 800m to come the gap to Belgium’s multiple champion was beginning to look daunting.
Full results here.
Mike Rowbottom for European Athletics