A stunning world indoor pentathlon record of 5055 points* by Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam highlighted a captivating night at the European Indoor Championships in Istanbul on Friday (3), but this was no solo display of supremacy.
Thiam was pushed to the dying moments by Poland’s Adrianna Sulek, whose tally of 5014 also surpassed the previous world record of 5013, set in the same Atakoy Arena in 2012 by Ukraine’s Nataliya Dobrynska.
And the most exciting part? They both feel like they have more to give.
After a strong morning of action, Thiam had a lead of 144 points going into the evening session. She kept Sulek at arm’s length with her 6.59m effort in the long jump, which gave her a 134-point lead ahead of the 800m, which she went into knowing she needed to run under 2:15.60 to break the world record. Sulek very nearly ran herself to a standstill in the final event, stumbling through the final metres to hit the line in 2:07.17, with Thiam crossing in 2:13.60 to take her third European indoor gold, along with the world record.
“Coming here, I felt very confident,” said Thiam. “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 long jump, high jump could have been better. So I can still build on this.”
Sulek was buoyed by her performance and has eyes on going one better next time. “I really wanted to have a world record and I have done everything,” she said. “I didn’t expect that Nafissatou would be fighting in this style today. I hope that in the future I will be the best in the world.”
Born: 19 August 1994. Coach: Michael Van der Plaetsen.
When Nafissatou Thiam claimed a surprise heptathlon victory at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, she was concerned that perhaps that might be it.
“I was really surprised with my achievement there and I was thinking maybe I’m 21 and maybe I have reached my maximum already,” she said. “Maybe I will never be that good again. There were a lot of questions and doubts on my mind.”
Turns out, it was just the beginning.
Thiam had gone into the competition in Rio as a double senior European medallist, having claimed pentathlon silver in 2015 and heptathlon bronze the year before that, while she won the European U20 heptathlon title in 2013 and secured European U23 high jump silver in 2015.
But things went up another notch in 2016. Her dedication was paying off.
Thiam’s talent was evident from a young age and the Belgian athlete made a decision when she was 14 years old to train away from her home town of Namur, commuting to Liege, more than 60 kilometres away, on a daily basis so she could work with combined events coach Roger Lespagnard. It was under the guidance of Lespagnard, a three-time Olympian in the decathlon between 1968 and 1976, that she won that Olympic title in Rio, setting a Belgian record of 6810 to triumph ahead of defending champion Jessica Ennis-Hill.
She won her first European indoor pentathlon title in Belgrade the following year, before going on to make history at Gotzis’ prestigious HypoMeeting that May.
There, Thiam continued her quest for multi-events world domination and raised the bar to another level, scoring 7013 points in a highly competitive heptathlon contest, climbing to third on the world all-time list.
“I went to Gotzis and I did something amazing and realised I can still improve a lot and I can still do great things in the years to come,” she said.
Thiam, a geographical sciences student, carried that new-found confidence to the World Athletics Championships in London and, not fazed by the pressure of entering a championships as the favourite, delivered yet another world-class heptathlon to take gold with 6784 points. Later that year, she was named World Athlete of the Year.
Thiam won her first European heptathlon title in 2018 and in 2019, despite struggling with an elbow injury, she added world silver to the gold she had won two years prior.
The year 2021 started with another European indoor pentathlon title win, this time in Torun, and then she turned her attention to Tokyo. There Thiam became just the second woman in history to successfully defend an Olympic combined events title, taking heptathlon gold with a score of 6791 points.
There was no pentathlon in 2022, but a busy outdoor season lay ahead. First Thiam retained her world heptathlon title in Oregon, scoring 6947 for the second-best mark of her career, and then just one month later she retained her European title. Her season came to a close at the Memorial van Damme in Brussels, where she finished fourth in the long jump.
That had been her most recent result prior to the European Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Thiam spending the time training in South Africa with her new coach, Michael Van der Plaetsen, rather than competing.
It paid off.
In a brilliant battle with Poland’s Adrianna Sulek, Thiam scored 5055 points and Sulek 5014 as they both surpassed the previous world record.
“When you have good competitors like we had today, they just push you to show your best,” said Thiam. “In the 800m, I did not watch anyone. I knew I had to get a good time and I would be first.”
No.1 in Istanbul and No.1 in history, with the chance to make even more at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23 in August. There she could again go up against Sulek, as well as Anna Hall (USA), who herself came close to the world indoor pentathlon record with 5004 in Albuquerque last month.
Women’s world indoor pentathlon all-time top 10
5055 Nafissatou Thiam (BEL) Istanbul, 3 Mar 2023
( 8.23 – 1.92 – 15.54 – 6.59 – 2:13.60 )
5014 Adrianna Sulek (POL) Istanbul, 3 Mar 2023
( 8.21 – 1.89 – 13.89 – 6.62 – 2:07.17 )
5013 Nataliya Dobrynska (UKR) Istanbul, 9 Mar 2012
( 8.38 – 1.84 – 16.51 – 6.57 – 2:11.15 )
5004 Anna Hall (USA) Albuquerque 16 Feb 2023
( 8.04 – 1.91 – 13.80 – 6.34 – 2:05.70 )
5000 Katarina Johnson-Thompson (GBR) Prague 6 Mar 2015
( 8.18 – 1.95 – 12.32 – 6.89 – 2:12.78 )
4991 Irina Belova (RUS) Berlin 15 Feb 1992
( 8.22 – 1.93 – 13.25 – 6.67 – 2:10.26 )
4965 Jessica Ennis-Hill (GBR) Istanbul 9 Mar 2012
( 7.91 – 1.87 – 14.79 – 6.19 – 2:08.09 )
4948 Carolina Kluft (SWE) Madrid 4 Mar 2005
( 8.19 – 1.93 – 13.29 – 6.65 – 2:13.47 )
4929 Noor Vidts (BEL) Belgrade 18 Mar 2022
( 8.15 – 1.83 – 14.03 – 6.60 – 2:08.81 )
4927 Kelly Sotherton (GBR) Birmingham 2 Mar 2007
( 8.23 – 1.88 – 14.57 – 6.51 – 2:12.54 )
Nafissatou Thiam’s performance in Istanbul
(PBs in brackets)
60m hurdles: 8.23
High jump: 1.92m (2.02/1.96i)
Shot put: 15.54m
Long jump: 6.59m (6.86/6.79i)
800m: 2:13.60 (2:13.00 outdoors)
Adrianna Sulek’s performance in Istanbul
(PBs in brackets)
60m hurdles: 8.21
High jump: 1.89m (1.92 outdoors)
Shot put: 13.89m (14.18 outdoors)
Long jump: 6.62m
*Subject to the usual ratification procedure