04 September, 2014

Brussels: Press Conference Highlights

Three of the gold medallists from the recent European Championships spoke to the press ahead of the 2014 IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels on Friday (5). All three of them have different goals in the Belgian capital.

Photos: © Gladys Chai von der Laage

World and European high jump champion Bogdan Bondarenko will be up against his arch rival Mutaz Essa Barshim on Friday night, and they are the only two men left in the Diamond Race in their event.

Having taken 10 attempts at the world record height of 2.46m this season, the Ukrainian isn’t setting himself any lofty targets for Friday’s competition. He simply hopes that the conditions are good.

“I was at my best this year at the European Championships in Zurich, but the competition was held in cold and rainy conditions,” said Bondarenko, who turned 25 last week. “That was very disappointing and it took a lot of energy out of me. I don’t want to make any predictions for Friday; I just hope that the weather and the conditions will be fine.

“The world record is obviously a goal and I had many occasions this year to break it. The high jump is a balance between physical abilities and technique. When I was jumping at world record heights this year, the adrenaline pushed me so hard physically that I couldn’t get my technique right. That is something to work on.

“Beating the world record means that I want to jump 2.46m, not just equal the record at 2.45m. This year my bars were raised to 2.46m in New York and in Marrakesh. In New York I felt very strong, but in Marrakesh the horrible winds were too disturbing.

“When you try these kinds of heights it feels good the first three or four times,” he added. “After 20 times, you start wondering ‘why am I trying this?’ and you must be careful not to get scared of jumping that high.

“I saw the video of that jump on YouTube in 2006 when I was starting out in the high jump. As a Ukrainian kid, my big idol was Sergey Bubka of course. I also tried the pole vault but I didn’t have natural gymnastic ability.”

Renaud Lavillenie, on the other hand, is someone who has bags of natural pole vaulting ability. The Frenchman recently surrendered his winning streak after failing to clear a height in Stockholm, but he has already done enough this season to secure an unprecedented fifth Diamond Race title.

“I’m optimistic for tomorrow,” said the world record-holder. “The conditions are supposed to be favourable. My aim is to go over six metres. I just want to enjoy myself and give everything.”

When asked whether things had changed since breaking the world record, Lavillenie said that the only difference now was in the expectations of others.

“People’s attitude has changed enormously,” he said. “Now, people don’t care about six metres. They want the world record – or, for my French fans, even higher – every time I compete.”

Lavillenie is currently one of just seven athletes to hold a world record in an event in which they are a reigning Olympic champion. He says that, for him, the Olympic title is more important.

“The Olympic title is much, much bigger than the world record,” he said. “I have the record, but it can be broken at any moment, while not everybody can get an Olympic title. I had about five attempts at breaking the world record; you don’t get five attempts at winning an Olympic title.”

Unlike Bondarenko and Lavillenie, Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad isn’t in contention to win the Diamond Race as this will be his first appearance in a steeplechase in the 2014 IAAF Diamond League, and Kenya’s Jairus Birech already has an unassailable lead in the Diamond Race.

Instead, Mekhissi-Benabbad simply wants to break up the Kenyan dominance of the event by challenging Birech for the victory tomorrow.

“Tomorrow’s field looks like an Olympic final,” said Mekhissi-Benabbad. “It’s probably even better, because in an Olympic final you’d have a maximum of three Kenyans, whereas there is more than that in tomorrow’s race.

“Birech is there, and he has been almost unbeatable this season. It will be the first time this year we have raced against each other,” added Mekhissi-Benabbad, whose career head-to-head record against Birech is currently tied at two apiece. “I’m not going to put pressure on myself; I’ll just see how the race goes and will then try to beat him.”

Since the IAAF Diamond League began in 2010, only one men’s 3000m steeplechase race hasn’t been won by a Kenyan. Mekhissi-Benabbad was the victor on that occasion, winning in Paris three years ago.

Another win tomorrow, he says, will be a huge boost ahead of next year’s IAAF World Championships and the 2016 Olympics.

“The steeplechase is a very tough race,” he says. “It’s not easy to compete against the strength of the Kenyans. They have won every world and Olympic gold medal for the past 20 or 30 years. If I can break that dominance, I can be a legend of the sport. That’s why I put myself through all this tough training.

“Winning tomorrow’s race will put me in a psychologically strong position ahead of next year’s World Champs, because the field is like an Olympic final.”

While it has been one of his career goals to run faster than eight minutes, Mekhissi-Benabbad is unsure whether it will happen tomorrow as it is dependent on so many factors.

“I’ve come close to it before and I know I have the ability to do it,” say the 29-year-old, who holds the European record of 8:00.09. “I know I can do it, and if the occasion presents itself to do it, of course I will go for it.

“Tomorrow, it will depend on the weather and the pacemakers and the way my competitors will run. There are a lot of things that can influence the race.”

Like Bondarenko and Lavillenie, Mekhissi-Benabbad will represent Europe at the IAAF Continental Cup later this month. He will contest the 1500m, the event in which he won gold at the European Championships, having been disqualified from the steeplechase after taking his best off in celebration before crossing the finish line.

“I was happy that in the 1500m I could show that I’m a great athlete. It took a lot of mental strength to come back and win it,” he said. “Emotionally it was a heavy championship for me, but I’ve recovered well and I have some very good training sessions behind me.

“The steeplechase is a much tougher event than the 1500m,” he added. “In the past, the programme at major championships have never allowed for a 1500m and steeplechase double. Zurich was the first time I was able to combine both. I have always liked both events, but my main goal for the next World Championships and Olympics is to win the steeplechase. After that, then I might focus on the 1500m.”

Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF and the IAAF Diamond League