Greatest ever Pentathlon?

The Pentathlon is five events over the course of one day, in order 60m H, high jump, shot put, long jump, and 800m.  The outdoor heptathlon adds 200m and javelin for a seven-event two-day competition.  Jess Ennis’s coach once described pentathlon preparation to me as spinning plates. He meant the difficulty in maximizing an athlete’s performance in five/seven potentially contradictory disciplines. He explained that if Jess Ennis put on more weight, she would throw further, but the extra weight might slow her running and impede her jumping.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – MARCH 03: Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium celebrates after winning the Women’s Pentathlon with a New World Record during Day 1 of the European Athletics Indoor Championships at the Atakoy Arena on March 03, 2023, in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images for European Athletics)


No pentathlete is equally good at all events. Some are world-class in one discipline but have had to work hard in the others. Jess Ennis, for example, at one stage held the British record for 60m hurdles. Katarina Johnson-Thompson could compete for a medal in the long jump. It is probably true to say that the successful heptathlete is the one with the least weaknesses; you could say the one with the best “worst” discipline.

Nafi Thiam, photo by Chiara Montesano/European Athletics

Competitors get points according to time and distance for each disciple, with the combined total points deciding the places.  The final result was

1 Nafi Thiam 5055

2 Adrianna Sulek 5014

3 Noor Vidts 4823

4  Sophie Doktor 4499

The competition was dominated by the three medallists, with Thiam finishing in the 5 disciplines 1,1,2,2,3 with Sulek 1,1,2,2,7 and Vidts 1,2,3,3,5.   Thiam and Sulek each won two disciplines and were second in two.  The difference was that in Thiam’s weakest event – 60mH – she was third, whereas Sulek was only seventh in the shot. That made all the difference.

Nafi Thiams, photo by Chiara Montesano for European Athletics

The official report on the Istanbul pentathlon on the European Athletics website described it as the best pentathlon competition ever.

An ironic coincidence was that Ukraine’s Nataliya Dobrynska set the previous world record of 5013 points in this very arena during the World Indoors in 2012. Dobrynska, fittingly, was a spectator in the arena to see her record go. Dobrynska told European Athletics: “I had a feeling that my record would be broken today. That’s why I’m here. But two athletes! And it’s fine. I am very happy about this because my record lasted for 11 years. The sport has moved on, and fantastic athletes have made great results.”


As the athletes entered the final event, the 800, to break the world record,

Nafi Thiam, WR holder, pentathlon, photo by Chiara Montesnao/European Athletics

Thiam needed to run 2:16 and Sulek 2:07, and they both achieved it.  Some statisticians insist that Sulek broke the world record and held it for six seconds – until Thiam finished.  It will be interesting to see how World Athletics records it!

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – MARCH 3: Holly Mills of Great Britain competes in the women’s 800m Pentathlon Final during the European Athletics Indoor Championships at the Ataköy Athletics Arena on March 3, 2023, in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Sam Mellish/Getty Images)

When confirmation of the result came through, both athletes were still prostrate with the efforts expended in an epic competition. While “only” second, Sulek’s performance was magnificent, setting personal bests in four events and equalling it in another.

Thiam said: “Coming here, I felt very confident; I have done a lot of good work, and of course, the record was in my mind. But you need a good competition to feel good and to perform well. It is good information for me that I managed to show this result despite the fact that not all events were perfect today. The jump – the long jump and the high jump could have been better. So I can still build on this. It is a big motivation for me to move further”.

Nafi Thiam, photo by Chiara Montesano, for European Athletics




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