Seventeen months on from the heptathlon award ceremony at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Kelly Sotherton finds herself as the last medal-winner still standing as a multi-events competitor at the start of another World Championship year. As she puts in the hard yards at the UK Athletics warm-weather training camp at Potchefstroom in South Africa, preparing for the indoor season and then the Worlds in Berlin in August, the two women who stood next to her on the rostrum in the Nagai Stadium have both moved on to things other than the challenge of the outdoor seven-event heptathlon and the indoor five-discipline pentathlon.
Carolina Kluft, the imperious Swede who won in Osaka and at the previous two World Championships (Paris in 2003 and Helsinki in 2005), has shown no inclination to return to the heptathlon after switching to the long jump and triple jump in search of a "fresh challenge" last year and failing to get close to a medal in either event at the Beijing Olympics (she finished ninth in the long jump and failed to make the final of the triple jump). In any case, the 25-year-old is only just back in training after suffering a stress fracture of the shin. She intends to compete only in 60m sprints in the indoor season, to build up the strength in her legs for a summer in which she is likely to concentrate solely on the long jump.
As for Lyudmila Blonska, who finished between Kluft and Sotherton as the silver-medal winner in Osaka, she is concentrating on enforced retirement. Having already served a two-year suspension for failing a drugs test in 2003, the Ukrainian was banned for life when she tested positive for methyltestosterone after finishing runner-up to her compatriot Nataliya Dobrynska in the heptathlon in Beijing, and she was obliged to return her silver medal.
The World Anti-Doping Agency's report about the drug-testing programme at the Games revealed that Blonska intimated to a disciplinary committee that her husband and coach, Sergei Blonskiy, was to blame for her positive test. "She testified that he was responsible for her training and diet," the report stated. "She indicated that they were having relational difficulties."
Blonska certainly has relational difficulties with Sotherton, who had been quick to air her suspicions about how the Ukrainian could return from a lengthy suspension as a markedly improved athlete. Still, the Briton has no need to worry about competing against her on an uneven playing field again, or about the peerless Kluft challenging her on the multi-event medal front – in the immediate future at least.
In fact, as Sotherton seeks to reassert herself on the international scene after finishing an out-of-sorts fifth in Beijing(though she was promoted to fourth after Blonska's disqualification), the 32-year-old Birchfield Harrier and Commonwealth champion is looking like the woman to beat in the pentathlon at the European Indoor Championships in Turin from 6 to 8 March.
Having finished as a runner-up in her previous three international championships indoors – behind Kluft in the European events in Madrid in 2005 and Birmingham in 2007, and behind the Olympic high jump champion Tia Hellebaut, now retired, at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia last March – Sotherton would certainly appear to have a golden chance to take gold this time.
Her British team-mate, Jessica Ennis, is not expected to compete indoors at international level as she works her way back to full fitness after missing the Olympics with an ankle fracture. And though Dobrynska, Kluft's successor as Olympic champion, has agreed to face Sotherton in a special three-event challenge in the Grand Prix in Birmingham on 21 February, she is unlikely to contest the pentathlon in Turin.
"I'd like to win the European Indoorsand try to win the World Champion-ships," Sotherton said ahead of her season's opener, the Aviva International in Glasgow on 31 January. "Those are my two main objectives for the year. I'm more invigorated this year. I'm more up for the challenge."
Sotherton's Olympic challenge was undermined by a kidney problem and a quadriceps injury. Her quest to bounce back in 2009 has been buoyed by the appointment of Charles van Commenee, the Dutchman who guided her to Olympic bronze in 2004, as the new head coach of UK Athletics. "I think he'll bring a new dimension to British athletics – an honesty that probably we haven't had and a directness," she said of the man who famously criticised her efforts in the final event of the Olympic heptathlon in 2004, saying she ran the 800m "like a wimp". "People want direct answers and Charles will give them to you," she said. "People will know where they stand and what they need to do."