As European Athletics prepares to stage its first major championships since the coronavirus pandemic, the focus of attention in Torun is on Renaud Lavillenie and Armand Duplantis’ highly anticipated clash in the pole vault, Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s prospective 1500/3000m double and the home nation’s ambition of topping the medal table for a third consecutive time.
But Poland’s recent dominance at the Torun 2021 European Athletics Indoor Championships could be challenged at the 36th edition of the championships by a nation that has evidenced a noteworthy resurgence in the last couple of years: the Netherlands.
That rivalry looks to be at its most intense in the women’s 400m and 4x400m in which 28-year-old home athlete Justyna Święty-Ersetic, the 2018 European outdoor champion who is third on the European lists with the 51.80, will take on the two Dutch runners above her in the 2021 lists – Femke Bol and Lieke Klaver.
Since Święty-Ersetic’s heroics at the 2018 Europeans in Berlin – she also ran on Poland’s 4x400m team less than two hours after winning the individual title – Bol and Klaver have risen to prominence under the guidance of Laurent Meuwly, the Swiss coach now overseeing sprinting, hurdles and relay events for the Netherlands.
Effectively headhunted by the Dutch Athletics Federation through the efforts of Charles van Commenee, Meuwly’s new area of operation has included the “Close The Gap” project for the 400m and 400m hurdles events.
The group based with Meuwly at the hi-tech Dutch National Training Centre in Papendal includes Bol and Klaver as well as two Swiss athletes whom he has continued to coach – reigning European 400m hurdles champion Lea Sprunger and Ajla Del Ponte, who could start as the favourite in the 60m with Ewa Swoboda an unfortunate withdrawal due to a positive coronavirus test.
Meuwly has overseen the broadening of Bol’s capabilities from the 400m flat to the 400m hurdles where she made an immediate impact, winning the 2019 European U20 title in Boras before reaching the semifinals at the World Athletics Championships in Doha in her first season in the event.
Switching back to the 400m flat for this indoor season, Bol has made further huge strides, and she goes into these championships as the fastest woman in Europe thanks to her time of 50.64 - an outright national record - at the Dutch Indoor Championships on 21 February.
Second place is held by Klaver, Bol’s good friend and training partner, who clocked 51.21 in finishing second to Bol at the Dutch Indoor Championships.
Like Bol, Klaver has made big improvements in the space of the last couple of years, finishing top of the 2020 European lists over 200m (22.66) and 400m (50.98), the latter performance coming in the Rome Diamond League where she claimed victory ahead of Swiety-Ersetic.
Asked about which is her favourite event, Klaver told European Athletics last year: “I love them both and I need them both, like my parents.” Meuwly, however, sees her long-term future in the longer event.
And Meuwly’s personal interest in the forthcoming championships will include the fortunes of Sprunger, the reigning European indoor champion who will be looking to reach the podium again in her final season prior to retirement.
The Dutch will have gold medal possibilities too in the men’s 400m in which Liemarvin Bonevacia tops the 2021 lists with a personal best and national indoor record of 45.99.
The fastest man in the field, however, is Czech Republic’s Pavel Maslak, who has run 45.24 and will be seeking a record fourth European indoor title. He has also won three world indoor titles including gold in 2014 when he earned gold in Sopot, the same track he will be running on in Torun.
Also in the mix will be Spain’s reigning European indoor silver medallist Óscar Husillos who will be looking to take advantage of the absence of reigning champion Karsten Warholm from Norway who equalled the European indoor record with 45.05 in Glasgow two years ago.
Meuwly’s work in relay coaching has also been highly effective and the Dutch men’s and women’s 4x400m teams here both have gold medal prospects.
Having persuaded the Dutch federation to send a women’s team to the World Relays in Yokohama in May 2019, the coach saw his quartet reach the final, earning Tokyo 2020 qualification in the process before reaching the world final in Doha.
With Bol, Klaver and European indoor and outdoor bronze medallist Lisanne de Witte available, the Dutch quartet looks a tough team to beat. Meanwhile the men’s team, with Bonevacia and 2019 individual bronze medallist Tony Van Diepen as their prime contenders, will also have ambitions of reaching the top of the podium.
And there will be yet more reason for Dutch optimism in the women’s 60m hurdles in which reigning champion Nadine Visser, who is coached by Bart Bennema, has been in consistently excellent form this year.
Visser heads the European list with a Dutch record of 7.81 which she recorded in Madrid on February 24 – also matching the previous 2021 world best set by Christina Clemons of the United States in Torun on February 17.
“Finally! We had been looking for this for a while. In South Africa [during a training camp] I saw special things, but that was downwind in the heat. Now the pieces are falling into place,” said Bennema on Visser’s record-breaking run in Madrid.
Her main rivals will include Great Britain’s 2014 European 100m hurdles champion Tiffany Porter, the veteran of the field at 33 who has clocked 7.89 this year. Current European 100m hurdles champion Elvira Herman from Belarus and Finland’s Nooralotta Neziri will also be in the medal discussion having both clocked 7.91 this season.