With the trials for Britain’s World Championships team being held this weekend, The Mixed Zone’s Katie Smith casts her eye over the contenders who could be lifting us out of our seats when the world comes to London in August
After a turbulent first season housing West Ham United Football Club, the Olympic Stadium will ditch grass pitches for the more familiar running track as London gets ready to host the World Athletics and Para Athletics Championships this summer. It is the first time since the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games that a global sporting event of this scale has taken place in the nation’s capital.
Lord Coe’s organising team have ensured tickets are affordable and easily available. As a nice touch, all children’s tickets are fixed at £9.58, matching the 100 metres record set by Usain Bolt in the World Championships in 2009. While stalwarts of Team GB such as Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford will be there, it is the women’s side of the team that holds the really exciting medal potential. It is the strongest and most versatile set of British female athletes fielded for a long while, and here are a few to watch out for.
After double gold at the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade earlier this year, Laura Muir has taken up the mantle of poster girl for London 2017. The Scot has an infectious charm and relentless energy, juggling veterinary medicine studies alongside her athletics career, but she is ruthless on the track, and smashed a 32-year-old Championship record on her way to 1500 metres victory in Belgrade. She will face strong opposition from the likes of Olympic champion Faith Kipyegon, but on her day, and in her current sublime form, you would be brave to bet against Muir.
Heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson, or KJT as she is now affectionately known, has struggled to demonstrate her form in major championships. Her weakness in the shot put and javelin led to a disappointing sixth-place finish in Rio. Since then, KJT has split with long-time coach Mike Holmes and begun training with a new group of athletes in Montpellier, France. The change has clearly had a positive impact on the 24 year-old as she returned to competition in May with a personal best of 6,691 points. However, that impressive result only left her in fourth overall, even though she led after day one. In what was dubbed the greatest heptathlon of all times, KJT’s score was the fourth highest of all-time.
She may not have made it on to the podium, her post-competition tweet said it all: “Today I am better than I’ve ever been before. New hep PB, walking away not injured with A LOT of fire in my belly. Roll on London.”
KJT’s strength as over the seven disciplines of the heptathlon sometimes overshadows her talent across the single events. But her British high jump record of 1.98 metres, set in the Rio heptathlon, would have been enough to land the gold in the individual competition. If she can produce performances like that across the board, 7,000 points is also not an impossible target.
While London 2017 will mark the farewell of Usain Bolt, arguably the greatest sprinter of all time, the women’s 200 metres will be far more competitive than the men’s. Defending champion, and former heptathlete, Dafne Schippers is in scintillating form again this year, as is Olympic champion Elaine Thompson, who will be going for the double again in London. There will be British interest with the exciting young Dina Asher Smith, who broke the national records in the 100 and 200 metres in 2015. A bronze medal for the British women’s sprint relay team at the Rio Olympics is testament to the wealth of young talent across women’s sprinting right now. Their sights will be set on claiming another medal in that event this summer.
The Nielsen twins, Lina and Laviai, not only share identical features but a twin ambition to make an impact in London. At only 21 years of age, they are mature runners with an impressive set of junior results behind them. On their competitive senior debut, Laviai was part of the British quartet who claimed silver in the indoor 4×400 metres in Belgrade. Lina unfortunately was forced to withdraw through injury on the journey to the championships. Laviai also ran in the individual 400 metres, missing the bronze medal by only 0.27 of a second.
Their rise into the senior ranks has come at a time when British women’s 400-metre running has been somewhat sparse. The twins have injected new energy into the event, with Laviai the faster of the two, and Lina moving into 400 hurdles as the stronger athlete. Even if they require a few years of development to seriously challenge in the individual events, the prospect of their combined power in the one-lap relay is exciting. President of the University of London athletics club, Max Arzt-Jones, says of the pair: “In my first year at King’s College London I ran with the Nielsen twins. They are thick as thieves, and have a trust that is powerful. They are like any successful power couple in their confidence, support and upbeat attitude.”
Paralympian Libby Clegg is intent on building upon her dazzling form in Rio where she won both the T11 100 and 200 metres. She broke the 100-metre world record in the process. The Scottish sprinter is already talking about going to her fourth Games in Tokyo in 2020. Thus, an impressive set of performances in London is integral to her goal. Her younger fellow sprinter, Sophie Hahn, is also one to watch. The T38 runner claimed gold in Rio in the 100 metres at 19 years of age. She also holds the world record in this event, set at the IPC World Championships in 2015. Both women are part of a golden era of British Para Athletics sprinting.
Another household name from London 2012 is wheelchair racer Hannah Cockcroft. The always-smiling sprinter does not settle for less than gold, and took home three of them in Rio in the T34 100, 400 and 800 metres. Her versatility across a range of distances makes her a formidable opponent and she will relish a return to the track where she made her name five summers ago.
The past few years have been marked by a slight dip in British talent emerging in the field events. However, that may be about to change in 2017. Holly Bradshaw has been the British No1 pole-vaulter since 2012, but has been plagued by back injuries that have hindered her chances in the major outdoor events. However, her British record set in the Great City Games in Manchester last month shows an athlete in peak form in time for London. Sophie Hitchon provided one of the unexpected joys of Rio in the hammer, with an enormous throw of 74.54 metres in the final. It was a national record and won her the bronze, Britain’s first Olympic medal in the event.
Added to this, the strength and depth in British long-jumping is continuing to grow, with the likes of Jazmin Sawyers, Lorraine Ugen and Shara Proctor all having proven success at global championships. Yet with limited places on Team GB, the British Trials in Birmingham on July 1 and 2, will help shape the team for London 2017. The top two finishers in each event are automatically selected, providing they have one qualification standard performance. So there is potential for surprises and heartbreak. So keep your eyes peeled this weekend as fresh talent emerges to book their place at London 2017. And who knows, there may be a first glimpse at the next Christine Ohuruogu or Jessica Ennis-Hill.
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Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.