"We are pleased to be back in Greece, a country with tremendous tradition for athletics and look forward to strengthening our relationship through the hosting of another successful event,” said European Athletics Council member Toralf Nilsson at today’s official European Athletics-LOC press conference which was held in the heart of Heraklion at the city's Municipality, ahead of the Team Championships First League.
Nilsson explained what makes this event so special: “it's a team competition and every point is important, no matter if you're going for the win or fighting for survival. Teams must stay focused and support each other throughout both days of competition."
This sentiment was echoed by 400m hurdlers Periklis Iakovakis and Thomas Barr, who arrive in Heraklion at contrasting stages of their careers. While Barr is the new kid on the block, Iakovakis will be hanging up his spikes after the 4x400m relay on the second day of competition.
Including the European Cup which ran from 1965 to 2008, Iakovakis will be making his 16th appearance this weekend.
“It’s one of my favourite competitions,” said Iakovakis. “I really like the whole idea of the team and I was always attracted to the 4x400m because of the team spirit. I was always counting points and being a cheerleader! It’s a big competition and it was always on the agenda every year. I always knew that in June, I needed to be there in good shape to help my team. I have a lot of good memories from it.”
Now 36, Iakovakis hasn’t broken the 50-second barrier in three years but the veteran of the team believes his body can still hold up for one more sterling effort. “I’m not at the same level because of injuries but I still have something to give and I will try to do my best and help my team,” he said. “I’m not the Periklis I used to be but this will be the best Periklis because I will compete with my heart.”
Iakovakis, who has a season’s best of 50.84, looks set to be drawn in the B-race for his swansong. The A-race features two athletes who have run more than two seconds faster this year including Barr, who comes fresh from an Irish record and European-leading mark of 48.65 from the Rome Diamond League.
“My race in Rome was probably the best race I’ve had to date,” said Barr, who beat European champion Kariem Hussein and silver medallist Rasmus Magi in that race. “I really hope I can maintain what I have started; I just need to keep myself at the level I want to be at.”
The Irish team has been tipped for a top six finish this weekend and Barr emphasises the importance of fighting for every position. “Every athlete has to give their best day on the day and get as many points as we can. Whether it’s first, second, third, or ninth, every point counts.”
One of the highest profile names competing this weekend is 2008 Olympic triple jump champion Nelson Evora. The Portuguese has been sidelined with more than his fair share of injuries since that triumph but the 31-year-old came away with his first title in seven years at the European Indoor Championships in Prague this March.
“After all of my injuries, it was a very important moment for me after such a long time staying at home and trying to recover [from my injuries.] That gave me some confidence to continue my work and train hard for major competitions,” said Evora.
The event has moved on in recent times with Pedro Pablo Pichardo and Christian Taylor both threatening the world record. In time, Evora is confident he can recapture the form which made him the world’s best triple jumper in the late 2000s.
“To be honest, I’m not thinking right now about eighteen metres,” admitted Evora. “I’m just trying to improve step-by-step, and it’s going in the right direction. I know I can do it but I need my time.”
Local interest will be focused on Greek sprinter Maria Belibasaki, who celebrates her 24th birthday today. Belibasaki is set to come up against Dafne Schippers from the Netherlands in three events this weekend: the 100m, 200m and 4x100m.
“It is definitely very challenging and difficult to represent Greece in three events,” said Belibasaki, who hails from Crete. I’m a pure 200m runner but I will do my best in the 100m and the relay team.”