Katarina Johnson-Thompson (KJT) has a shot at greatness. If she can beat World No.1 Nafissatou Thiam to heptathlon gold at either the World Championships in Doha or the Olympics in the Tokyo within the next twelve months, she will be remembered as one of Great Britain’s finest athletes.
Can KJT Win?
Johnson-Thompson is a brilliant athlete. She is a superb jumper and an excellent runner, and she is the heptathlon World No.2. These factors give her a good chance of taking home the gold medal she craves.
However, Thiam is a formidable obstacle in her path. The Belgian is the world’s best heptathlete and the reigning World and Olympic champion. Since she burst onto the scene at Rio 2016, she has won all the biggest competitions. Even more worryingly, she has beaten KJT every time she has faced her.
On this evidence, it is no surprise at all that Thiam is considered the clear favourite for gold in Doha and Tokyo. But that does not mean the Brit cannot beat her. It just means she will have to be at her very best to stand a chance.
How To Beat Thiam – The Mental SideEmbed from Getty Images
As hard as it might sound, KJT will try not to think about Thiam. In fact, she will try not to think about any aspect of the heptathlon except what she is doing at that precise moment.
“When I finish a technical session and something goes right, I write down what I did to make it go well, and then I think about that in the arena, instead of me standing on a podium,” Johnson-Thompson said in a recent interview with The Telegraph.
Despite this tunnel vision, the Brit knows she cannot ignore Thiam completely, and a comment she made after she faced the Belgian in the long jump in Birmingham last month hinted at her approach to taking on the World No.1.
“She’s stepped up her game in the long jump, so I just have to try and follow,” Johnson-Thompson said in an interview on BBC Two. “I was glad I was able to do that with the last jump.”
Although KJT made this comment about the long jump, it would not be a surprise if that is her overall attitude to facing Thiam.
It is a sensible approach, too, because if the Brit stays with the Belgian for six events of the heptathlon in Doha, she will have fantastic chance of overtaking her in the 800m which often provides a thrilling finale to multi-event competitions.
How To Beat Thiam – The Technical SideEmbed from Getty Images
If you look at Johnson-Thompson and Thiam’s personal bests for the seven events in the heptathlon, the scale of the challenge facing the Brit is clear.
KJT v Thiam – Personal Bests
|100m Hurdles||13.29s – 1081 pts||13.34s – 1074 pts|
|High Jump||1.98m – 1211||2.02m – 1264|
|Shot Put||13.14m – 787||15.41m – 888|
|200m||22.79s – 1100||24.40s -943|
|Long Jump||6.92m – 1145||6.86m – 1125|
|Javelin||42.92m – 723||59.32m – 1041|
|800m||2:07.64 – 999||2:15.25 – 889|
|Total Points >>||6996||7224|
If Thiam matches all of those personal bests, she will achieve the second-highest heptathlon score of all time. If she surpasses some of them, she may even go close to Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s world record of 7,291 points (set in 1988). In either of these situations, KJT’s chances of beating her are virtually zero.
Fortunately for the Brit, that kind of stellar performance is unlikely to happen at the World Championships in Doha. The Belgian has battled calf and elbow injuries during the 2019 season, and she will probably be some distance away from peak condition.
Johnson-Thompson must take advantage of this. She needs to put the pressure on Thiam early by establishing a lead in the 100m Hurdles and then out-performing her in the high jump.
Barring any major shocks, the Belgian will reduce the deficit or even overtake KJT thanks to her superior shot-put, before the Brit moves back ahead by beating her in the 200m.
Following this performance model, Johnson-Thompson will, crucially, be in first place at the start of day two. To win gold, she will probably need to extend her lead in event five by beating Thiam by as many centimetres as possible in the long jump.
That would give the Brit a buffer to withstand the Belgian’s inevitable comeback in the javelin. Then, even if Thiam’s powerful throwing propels her into first place after six events, KJT should be close enough to her to overtake her in the 800m.
ConclusionEmbed from Getty Images
Thiam is the favourite to win gold in Doha, but KJT has never been better placed to beat her for the first time. Her decision to train in Montpellier has helped her overcome the long jump meltdown which cost her the world title in Beijing in 2015 and she has also become a more positive presence during heptathlons and pentathlons in the past couple of years.
Her coach, Bertrand Valcin, believes this is very important. “It is the look. Before coming here, she always looked sad. Now she has a smile,” he told the i newspaper in 2018. “So this is a new Kat, I hope.”
The ‘new Kat’ has improved her weak events and discovered how to be consistent throughout the two days without having any let-downs. This has enabled her to win every major event her Belgian rival has been absent from or ineligible for: the 2018 World Indoor Championships, the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2019 European Indoor Championships.
This is bound to give the Brit confidence. She knows, without a doubt, that she is the second-best heptathlete in the world. And, if she can put Thiam under enough pressure in Doha, she could spring a surprise and take gold.