By design or coincidence, KJT and Emerson embellish Great Britain’s multi-event tradition in Glasgow

Katarina Johnson-Thompson
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Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Niamh Emerson took gold and silver in the pentathlon at the Glasgow 2019 European Athletics Indoor Championships

As newly minted gold and silver pentathletes at the Glasgow 2019 European Athletics Indoor Championships, Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Niamh Emerson appear to be part of a great British tradition.

Jessica Ennis-Hill, Kelly Sotherton, Denise Lewis, Judy Simpson, Mary Peters, Mary Rand - the line of high-achieving British female combined eventers goes back and back. But is this the handing on of a baton – or simply a happy coincidence?

Nobody is better placed to judge than the man who was sitting alongside Steve Cram and Paula Radcliffe in the BBC TV commentary box at the Emirates Arena and offered his analysis of both the pentathlon and heptathlon events – Toni Minichiello.

Minichiello was formerly the national event coach for combined events but switched roles in 2010 to become a UK Athletics Olympic coach, allowing him to focus on the athlete had had coached since she was 13, Ennis (later Ennis-Hill), guiding her to Olympic, European and world heptathlon titles.

In addressing the question, he is characteristically thorough. “I suppose if you look there are connections,” he said. “My personal reflection on it is that there is community within combined events in Britain, and what underpins it is probably the English Schools’ Championships.

“The English Schools happens every September, with three age groups - U15, U17 and U20. And it has 42 kids in each age group. That’s a phenomenal number. So that’s one thing. There’s a competition pathway through the schools.

“In addition we’ve had, from Mary Rand and Mary Peters through to Jess and now Katarina, the higher end role model. You can draw it back to that. They have captured the imagination. And then, of course in the decathlon, there was Daley Thompson. It was in the 1980s that the English Schools multi-events started.

“We used to have national squads, national gatherings. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen as often as it did, so the community element isn’t as strong, but there are a lot of people coaching children who go on to do multi-events.

“And they are not necessarily multi-event coaches. So what you’d find is, someone coaches a young girl who is good at sprints, good at jumps, all of a sudden the English Schools is coming up, have a go at a few throws, and suddenly you are doing multi-events.

“I think the appeal of multi-events is suddenly there’s an opportunity to do lots of different things. Too many children come into athletics saying ‘I’m a middle distance runner’ and that’s all they ever experience. Whereas people like to lots of different things – run, jump, throw, lots of different things. And to emulate their heroes.”

That analysis corresponds exactly with the response of Johnson-Thompson when the “legacy or coincidence” question is put to her.

“I sort of connect with that idea of a legacy because you see athletes who came before you and so you think that it’s possible. You see people come up and you get to know the event.

“But for me getting into the heptathlon was just for the reason that I loved athletics to the point where I wanted to do every single event. When I got to the London 2012 Olympics– that’s when I was influenced by Jess and what she achieved.”

So what kind of an impact does Minichiello believe KJT’s and Emerson’s podium performances will have on a younger generation of aspiring athletes?

“I think it will be powerful because it continues the sort of legacy created from Mary Peters and Daley Thompson.

“It’s a European Indoors, it’s at home.  We’ve now got an emerging young name with an established name. We’re going towards the Doha World Championships and Tokyo Olympics, so it continues this role model thing, which I think is important, and keeps the event at the forefront.

“Britain has a misconception that its athletics history and its legacy is in middle distance running, but at global level in recent years we’ve had more success in combined events than we have in any other event.

“There is this family tree of connections. But we have been fortunate because there are some exceptional individuals who have come through that.

“And I think what underpins that is if you’ve got 126 females doing combined events each September, out of that 126, hopefully you will find that one individual who will carry the torch later on.”