Johnson-Thompson nears 7000 points to win world heptathlon gold

Katarina Johnson-Thompson
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Katarina Johnson-Thompson set a world leading score of 6981 points to win the heptathlon title at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha

Prior to Doha, Katarina Johnson-Thompson said she put together her best ever build-up and she produced a monumental performance to defeat one of the all-time greats in Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam and displace the venerable Jessica Ennis-Hill’s British record of 6955 points with a world leading total of 6981 points.

Johnson-Thompson’s long jump resulted in disaster four years ago but it was one of the key events that helped the overnight leader to embellish her lead and clinch the heptathlon title on day seven of the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha. Johnson-Thompson also alluded to those missed medal opportunities in 2015 and 2017 and how they made her a more resilient athlete.

"I couldn’t have done it without them [previous championship experiences]; I'm not going to lie. I’m sure it would have been sweet in 2015 but here we are. The low moments have helped me come back and make the move [to Montpellier] and try and look inward on myself," said Johnson-Thompson.

Johnson-Thompson is a former British record-holder and a world indoor silver medallist in the long jump but the Brit - much to her frustration - has seldom produced a performance in the heptathlon which is commensurate to her vast ability in the event.

But this changed today as Johnson-Thompson followed her modest opener of 6.32m with an excellent second round effort of 6.77m - comfortably her best ever mark in a heptathlon long jump which added 1095 points to her score.

While Johnson-Thompson was miserly on the take-off board on her standout second attempt, reigning champion Thiam - who recently improved her national record to 6.86m to beat Johnson-Thompson and Ivana Spanovic in the Birmingham Diamond League - gave away a generous 33 centimetres on her third attempt which was measured at 6.40m, losing more ground on the leader. 

Johnson-Thompson led Thiam at this juncture of the heptathlon at the European Championships in Berlin last summer but the Brit had built up a near decisive cushion of 216 points compared to the 113-point margin at this stage of the competition last summer. One big effort from Thiam in the javelin could have changed the dynamics of the competition though.

But there have been lingering questions about the condition of Thiam’s throwing elbow which has at times been fallible over the last three seasons and the reigning champion was limited to just two throws. After deliberately fouling her first attempt, Thiam’s second round throw hit the turf at 48.04m. This was a season’s best for Thiam but it was also some way short of her 57.91m which propelled Thiam into the gold medal position at the European Championships in Berlin last year.

Johnson-Thompson was surpassing the 40-metre line with her warm-up throws and the Brit took this form into the competition proper, starting her campaign with 42.21m before setting her third lifetime best of the heptathlon with 43.93m. 

This gave Johnson-Thompson an unassailable lead of 137 points before the 800m and the leader’s form and consistency across the first six events was such Ennis-Hill’s British record of 6955 points loomed into view if she concluded her competition with a sub-2:10 performance.

Johnson-Thompson ended the heptathlon just how she started it, setting her fourth lifetime best of the heptathlon and crossing the finish-line in first place in 2:07.26. Thiam concluded her competition with a 2:18.93 clocking to ensure the silver medal with 6667 points while Verena Preiner came away with Austria's second bronze medal of the championships with 6560 points.

Johnson-Thompson also warmly paid tribute to Thiam, the standard-bearer in the heptathlon since her breakthrough win at the 2016 Olympics. She is a phenomenal athlete and she set the standard," she said. "There are greats from the past but I witnessed her making 7000 points and showing that it is doable and also a requirement in order to win. She’s raised the bar and I’m glad I’m able to follow and step up."

Kaul becomes youngest ever world decathlon champion at the age of 21

It might be presumptuous to declare this a changing of the guard but Germany’s Niklas Kaul has already taken some significant steps to fulfilling the vast promise he showed as a junior by winning the world decathlon title in just his second year in the senior ranks, setting a European U23 record of 8691 points.

“I never thought that I could take the gold medal because there are so many strong and talented decathletes here who could score 8600 points or more," said Kaul. "But I’m really happy to sit here as world champion."

The brutal nature of the sport was laid bare as world record-holder Kevin Mayer ended his title defence bereft and crumpled in a heap on the pole vault bed after two aborted efforts at his opening height of 4.60m. Mayer had his ankle and lower leg strapped for the second day and he required further treatment on his hamstring after pulling up in the 110m hurdles.

Mayer returned to the arena for the discus and he assumed the overall lead after throwing 48.36m but the world record-holder was clearly too hampered to take a full attempt in the pole vault and bid a teary farewell to the arena after pulling up lame for a second time. "I am very upset but I don't have any regrets," Mayer told L'Equipe. "The pain was apparent after the 100m and it became unbearable before the 400m."

Mayer’s departure left five decathletes principally in contention for the title including Germany’s European U23 champion Niklas Kaul who made his trademark late charge up the leaderboard with a string of superb performances in the last four events. 

Eleventh after the first day and nearly 400 points off the lead, Kaul made good progress up the leaderboard with a 49.20m lifetime best in the discus followed by another in the pole vault with 5.00m. At this point, Kaul was still more than 200 points adrift of the medals but the German is a formidable opponent in the last two events. He demonstrated this in Gavle in July in defeating Estonia's Johannes Erm for the European U23 title and he put paid to another Estonian's gold medal chances in Doha courtesy of two scintillating individual performances.   

Kaul set championship best performances of 75.42m and 79.05m in the javelin to propel himself up the standings and within 19 points of Estonia's Maicel Uibo's lead. Uibo is the best vertical jumper on the combined events circuit and he topped the standings in both the high jump (2.17m) and pole vault (5.40m) and despite surpassing expectations after a recent shoulder injury with a season's best of 63.83m in the javelin, the balance of power was firmly with the German.

"Actually, I only believed I could win the gold medal after the second throw in the javelin," said Kaul. "A lot can happen in the pole vault and in the javelin throw. Whether I throw 74 metres - which would still have been a good distance - or 79 metres, that's quite a difference. And when things are so tight, 80 points are relatively high." 

Uibo stuck to Kaul over the first two laps but a telling gap began to open with 550 metres to go. Kaul kicked on to the individual victory in 4:15.70 with Uibo ceding more than 15 seconds, wearily crossing the line just outside his lifetime best in 4:31.51.

The Estonian still came away with a silver medal and a lifetime best of 8604 points less than a year after undergoing heel surgery with Canada's Damian Warner taking the bronze medal with 8529 points. 

Steven Mills for European Athletics