Johnson-Thompson hunts gold at European Athletics Championships

    Dress rehearsals are rarely as beautiful – or important – as the one being staged in Rome over the next six days. For most of the continent’s biggest track and field stars are in the Eternal City, hunting not only a European Athletics Championships gold medal, but hoping to lay down a significant marker before next month’s Paris Olympics.

    And when it comes to gladiatorial showdowns, they don’t come much bigger than the one that kicks off Friday’s action, as Britain’s double world heptathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson faces off against Belgium’s double Olympic champion Nafi Thiam for the first time since 2022.

    Organisers are billing it as a “clash of the titans”, which owes more to Greek than Roman mythology, but there is no doubting the size of the task facing Johnson-Thompson.

    “Nafi is one of the greatest athletes of our generation, of all time,” she says. “I don’t feel like it is spoken about enough. To have her in the field is definitely going to raise everyone’s game.”

    Few would argue with that. When Johnson-Thompson shocked almost everyone to win world gold in Budapest last year, after serious achilles tendon and calf injuries appeared to have derailed her career, Thiam was absent with an achilles injury of her own. It means their latest clash is shrouded in intrigue and uncertainty – especially as Johnson-Thompson is also keeping her cards close to her chest.

    “I’m feeling good,” she says. “It’s a title I haven’t won – it’s a title I would like to have. It’s my first heptathlon of the year. You never know what to expect from your first heptathlon. In two days we’ll find out if the training has been going well.”

    Johnson-Thompson’s form in 2024 has so far been solid rather than spectacular, but it was certainly encouraging that in Graz last month she had her second best ever javelin performance, throwing 44.88m.

    “The heptathlon is always like spinning plates,” she says. “Some things are going well over here and some are over here. I just want to put it all together.”

    Keely Hodgkinson wins the women’s 800m in Oregon in late May. She is one of Team GB’s biggest hopes for gold in Rome. Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

    Johnson-Thompson is at the vanguard of an impressively strong British team, especially among the female athletes, with Dina Asher-Smith in the 100m, Daryll Neita in the 200m, Keely Hodgkinson in the 800m and Molly Caudery in the pole vault all having a strong chance of gold.

    The men’s team is noticeably weaker, however, with all four of Britain’s individual male medallists from Budapest – Josh Kerr, Matthew Hudson-Smith, Zharnel Hughes and Ben Pattison – absent. But there are high hopes for 400m starlet Charlie Dobson, who showed his class by running 44.46 last month after a series of injuries.

    “British athletics is in a really good place,” says Johnson-Thompson. “There are so many chances to win medals. You can’t count them on the fingers of one hand. It’s really, really exciting to be part of a strong team.”

    Lots of eyes will also be on CJ Ujah, who will compete in his first major championships since his failed drugs test cost Team GB an Olympic silver medal in Tokyo in 2021. The 30-year-old, whose positive test after the Olympic final was found to have been caused by a contaminated amino acid bought on Amazon for £10 during lockdown, will run in both the individual 100m and the 4x100m as he seeks to re-establish his credentials before Paris.

    Organisers are letting schoolchildren in for one euro, and the hope is that decent crowds will enjoy watching the cream of European talent, including the world pole vault champion Mondo Duplantis, the Olympic 1500m and world 5,000m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen and the world 400m hurdles champion Femke Bol.

    Several names that are likely to crash into the mainstream at this summer’s Olympics are also competing, including Ireland’s 21-year-old star Rhasidat Adeleke, who runs in the 400m, and the brilliant 18-year-old Serbian high jumper Angelina Topic.

    Naturally the home fans’ focus will largely be on their Olympic gold medallists from Tokyo, 100m champion Marcell Jacobs and high jumper Gianmarco Tamberi, who are both seeking a golden homecoming.

    “I hope to be able to run under 10 seconds this weekend,” says Jacobs, who ran 10.03sec recently. “I haven’t shown that I’m strong yet, but there’s enough time to get to the top at the Olympic Games: that’s my goal.”

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