Pavel Maslak of Czech Republic celebrates his third consecutive 400m title at the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade (© Getty Images)
In athletics, there are certain athletes whose physical make-up seems almost crafted for their specific event. Take the tall, slender figure of Airine Palsyte in the high jump, the broad, hulking power of Konrad Bukowiecki in the shot put or the aggressive, ruthless running of Laura Muir over 1500m.
All of the above, in their own ways, demonstrated their athletic mastery in Belgrade’s Kombank Arena on Saturday evening (4), but if there was one athlete who announced himself as king of his domain on the second day of the European Indoor Championships, then it was Pavel Maslak of the Czech Republic.
The 26-year-old took his third straight title over 400m at this event with a typically wily display of indoor expertise. Typically, Maslak uses his swift 200m pace to surge to the lead at the bell, but this time he had company when he got there. Liemarvin Bonevacia of the Netherlands refused to bow down and held the inside line as the pair set off together on their second lap, offering a hefty shoulder in Maslak’s direction as they rounded the turn.
Maslak, though, was too experienced to let the loss of momentum derail his hopes; he coasted to Bonevacia’s shoulder once again down the back straight, powered by before the turn, and when he reached the finish in 45.77, he had enough of a lead to be able to throw his arm aloft, three fingers held high to signify an achievement never before accomplished at the European Indoor Championships.
Poland’s Rafal Omelko finished strongly to take second in a PB of 46.08, with Bonevacia rewarded for his bravery in third, the Dutch athlete setting a national record of 46.26.
Bukowiecki threatens 22m barrier
Elsewhere on Saturday, there were a plethora of individual displays so dominant that the only issue to debate was by how far – not whether – the instigators of them would take gold.
In the men’s shot put, Konrad Bukowiecki might have fouled his first attempt, but when the giant Pole stepped into the circle for his second throw and unleashed a whopping effort of 21.97m, the contest was as good as over.
In truth, Bukowiecki’s work for the night was done, and sub-par throws of 20.69m, 20.85m and 20.98m seemed to attest to that in the following rounds, but they mattered not a jot to the 19-year-old, who having won the IAAF World U20 title last year, had stepped up to win his first major title at senior level.
“I’m completely in shock,” said Bukowiecki, whose winning throw was a world-leading mark. “I cannot even describe what I’m feeling. Call me tomorrow!”
Tomas Stanek of the Czech Republic broke new ground to take silver, his best throw of 21.43 a PB, while Germany’s David Storl was disconsolate after finishing third, the defending champion able to throw no further than 21.30m and having to accept that occasionally, experience is no match for the power of youth.
Palsyte improves to 2.01m
That was also the case in the women’s high jump, where event favourite Ruth Beitia was unable to contend with the supreme display of jumping from Lithuania’s Airine Palsyte, 13 years her junior, who soared over 2.01m to take gold.
Palsyte had entered the event in buoyant form, so this was no major upset, the 24-year-old having cleared a national record of 2.00m indoors this year. Two years ago in Prague Palsyte had fallen one place shy of the podium, but when she was perfect over 1.92m, 1.94m and 1.96m tonight, it became clear she was now destined for gold.
Beitia, also perfect over 1.94m, finally encountered a height at 1.96m she couldn’t clear on any of her three attempts, the Olympic gold medallist having to settle for silver. “Today the best athlete won,” she said. “But a silver medal at my age is simply fantastic.”
Palsyte, meanwhile, ordered the officials to raise the bar to 2.01m, which she cleared at her second attempt to break her own national record.
Muir powers to 1500m championships record
Later in the evening, another of the world’s most in-form athletes stepped to the line, the confidence almost oozing from her stride as she coasted through the first lap of the women’s 1500m final.
Britain’s Laura Muir may be just 23, but fear or apprehension seems to be permanently absent from her approach. Last year that aggressive running style may have cost her an Olympic medal, but Muir has clung to it with unquestioned loyalty this season.
It served her well this time around, the Scot charging to the front with six laps remaining, daring her competitors to match her searing pace. Though Poland’s Sofia Ennaoui and Germany’s young star Konstanze Klosterhalfen followed suit, in the end neither could match Muir’s relentless gallop.
Muir came home alone in 4:02.39, a championship record, well clear of Klosterhalfen, who clocked a PB in second of 4:04.45, and Ennaoui, third in 4:06.59.
“It feels like a long time coming to win a medal,” said Muir, who has set three European records this year. “I knew a couple of the girls would have good sprint finishes so I tried to play to my strengths.”
In the women’s pole vault, there was another commanding display from Greece’s Ekaterini Stefanidi, who recorded a perfect series up to her winning height of 4.85m, which she cleared at the first attempt. That proved more than good enough for gold, with her closest rival, Germany’s Lisa Ryzih, clearing a best of 4.75m in second.
In the men’s long jump, Albania’s Izmir Smajlaj pulled off an upset, setting a national record of 8.08m to take gold on count-back from Sweden’s Michel Torneus. Ukraine’s Serhiy Nykyforov took bronze with 8.07m in what will be remembered as one of the closest long jump competitions in history.
France’s Floria Guei, as is her style, left it late to win the women’s 400m in a PB of 51.90, the 26-year-old coming home well clear of Zuzana Hejnova of the Czech Republic (52.42) and Justyna Swiety of Poland (52.52).
Richard Kilty of Great Britain capped the evening programme with a successful 60m title defense in 6.54, ahead of Jan Volko whose 6.58 was a Slovak national record.
In the women’s long jump qualification, local favourite Ivana Spanovic soared out to a world-leading 7.03m with her first jump, setting the stage for what should be a thrilling final on Sunday as the Serbian crowd await their first gold medal of the championships. She should face stiff competition, however, from Darya Klishina, the Russian competing under a neutral flag, who jumped 6.83m in qualification.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF