Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! With the Women’s Heptathlon set to start this Friday, we ask writers Matt Blake and Victoria Monk if Katarina Johnson-Thompson can pip British rival Jess Ennis-Hill to Olympic gold…
YES! Her time has come
"Where better to step out of Jess Ennis-Hill’s shadow than in Rio?" – Matt Blake, sports writer, Virgin Media
Johnson-Thompson’s got the form
Good form to a heptathlete is like manure to a giant marrow: you won’t win the top prize if you aren’t in it for months before a competition. And Katarina Johnson-Thompson is in form, big time. Never was this more evident than at the Müller Anniversary Games last month, where the 23-year-old cleared two season’s bests in the high jump and long jump, even beating the latter’s specialists. Jess Ennis-Hill could only finish seventh in that event. For too long Johnson-Thompson has stood in Ennis-Hill’s shadow; it’s time to step into the sun. And where better to do that than in Rio, where sunshine was practically invented?
Jess said it best
The writing’s been on the wall for Ennis-Hill since she wrote it there herself in 2012. “I’m sure she’ll be better than me one day,” the Olympic champion said of Johnson-Thompson. “And then I’ll probably retire.” Since finishing 15th behind her compatriot in London, Johnson-Thompson has come fifth at the World Championships in Moscow, and then smashed Ennis-Hill’s British pentathlon record last year to win European Indoor Championships gold. The guard is changing – it’s Johnson-Thompson’s turn in the saddle.
History says it too
Johnson-Thompson may have come 15th in London four years ago, but her points tally of 6,267 was a UK junior record. At the same age (19), Ennis-Hill had yet to break through the 6,000-point barrier. That speaks volumes. This, really, is only the second time the pair have faced each other on the world stage as adults (in the IAAF). The first was the World Championships last year, which Ennis-Hill won and Johnson-Thompson disintegrated with three foul jumps in the long jump. That was a terrible toe-in-the-Blu-Tack blip. If she can keep her feet out of the plasticine this weekend, there’s no reason she can’t continue her ascent.
Experience of youth
Since the heptathlon was introduced to the Olympics in 1984, just two women over the age of 30 have won medals (Jackie Joyner-Kersee won gold in 1992 and Sabine John took silver in 1988). In fact, the average age of a gold medal winner in the event is 25. Now 30, Ennis-Hill is positively elderly by modern sporting standards. Even her coach has said he had to adapt her training to accommodate her age. Johnson-Thompson, on the other hand, is 23. She’s got youth on her side, and that is a powerful ally in the cut-throat world of elite heptathlon.
I’m sticking with stats here, and this is a strong one: only two women in history have kept hold of an Olympic title after giving birth – Australian Shirley Strickland (80m hurdles) in 1956, and Cameroon’s Françoise Mbango Etone (triple jump) in 2008. In the three years since London 2012, Ennis‑Hill barely ran, threw or jumped competitively because of injuries, pregnancy and the birth of her son Reggie in July 2014. That’s what makes her World Championship gold last year all the more impressive. But the Olympics are a different beast. If she can somehow retain her title, it would surely rank with the great British performances in Olympic history. Johnson-Thompson, however, has had no distractions (aside from some injuries), which may just prove the difference.
Agree with Matt?
NO! Ennis-Hill’s too good
"Johnson-Thompson may be winning hearts, but Jess is our golden girl" – Victoria Monk, writer, The Telegraph
Over the Hill? Not just yet
Katarina Johnson-Thompson may be raising a few impressed eyebrows on the athletics circuit, but Jessica Ennis-Hill is still queen of the track. While Johnson-Thompson may have been achieving personal bests this year, Ennis-Hill firmly remains Britain’s world record holder. Jess’ personal best is currently 6,955 – almost 300 points more than Katarina’s 6,682. If Ennis-Hill managed to equal all of her personal bests in one heptathlon at Rio, she would achieve a total of 7,175 points, leaving Johnson-Thompson trailing like Adam Peaty’s swimming contenders.
When she’s good…
In Ennis-Hill’s strongest events, she outperforms her rival by a country mile. Johnson-Thompson’s furthest ever shot put throw is some 2m shorter than Ennis-Hill’s, while her best javelin throw trails in at nearly 7m behind Ennis-Hill’s 48.33m. In fact, the only event that Johnson-Thompson is better at is long jump. That said, Ennis-Hill has been practising hard – she recorded a personal best of 6.63m in the long jump at the Combined Events Challenge in Germany earlier this year, also achieving 6,733 points overall, the second-best heptathlon score of 2016.
Mum’s the word
Just like Andy Murray winning Wimbledon earlier this year – the year of his firstborn – Ennis-Hill will be out to set a gold-winning example to her son Reggie. Coach Toni Minichiello has designed Jess’ new training plan to allow her to spend as much time with Reggie as possible, and the youngster seems to be having a positive effect. She made a return to athletics in 2015, post-pregnancy, with a vengeance, finishing a comfortable fourth in her first heptathlon for almost three years. Then, in August 2015, she iced the cake with gold at the World Championships in Beijing. Olympic gold this weekend would surely be the juiciest cherry a cake has ever had.
The nation’s behind her
Jess was the face of the 2012 London Olympics – her chiselled abs appearing on every bus, billboard, TV advert and cereal box for the months leading up to, during and even long after the games. You'd be hard pushed to find anyone who didn't fall for her earnest demeanour and sheer bloody-minded determination. Oh, and winning an Olympic gold also helped. At the Müller Anniversary Games in July, Ennis-Hill attracted a roar of support from her devoted fans. Similarly, she was voted Great Britain's favourite sporting hero in a poll conducted by Sport Relief earlier this year. A love like that takes time to build. Johnson-Thompson may be on the way to winning our hearts, but Ennis-Hill will forever be our golden girl.
Let us not forget that Ennis-Hill has done this before; she knows what it takes to win gold at the Olympics and will be keeping the secret to success firmly shtum from her fellow British rival. In Rio, Saturday 13 August has a potential “Super Saturday” (the day of London 2012 when Britain won six golds, including Ennis-Hill in the heptathlon, Mo Farah in the 10,000m and Greg Rutherford in the long jump), and Jess will be looking to replay her part in the success.
Agree with Victoria?
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