The dashchunds tell a story of the rivalry between Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson which plays out in a heptathlon competition more absorbing than anything pitching Briton against Briton in Rio de Janeiro, in the days ahead.
Ennis-Hill’s association with the dogs has become nationally recognised since she began appearing on television adverts with one trailing on a lead behind her, past billboards which capture her image. But Johnson-Thompson has dashchunds of her own.
“I definitely had them first!” she said recently, indicating that she was not an imitator where Ennis-Hill is concerned. Four years on from London’s Super Saturday, though, Ennis-Hill remains the billboard star and the one to beat as the two go up against each other.
The 23-year-old would probably have imagined accelerating ahead of her, by now. This personal contest pitches her against a 30-year-old mother-of-two, after all. Athletes will tell you that the training regime you take for granted in your early to mid-20s, because your body can cope, becomes more difficult. Ennis-Hill has had to adapt her training over the past few years. “It’s just about getting used to being older and being a different type of heptathlete now,” she said recently.
What gives her a real edge in the days ahead, though, is her uncanny ability to deliver on big occasions. Ennis-Hill nearly always produces her best score of the year at a major championships. She won last month’s meet at Ratingen, in north west Germany, with a score of 6733 – higher than both of her World Championship victories. There is a feeling she could be set for a score in the region of 6800, here. Johnson-Thompson’s personal best is 6,682.
We all know Ennis-Hill revealed ice in her veins to win in London four years ago but her victory in last year’s World Championships in Beijing last year was also up there. She was not at her best – nowhere near it - and yet battled through to win, sprinting past the Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton on the home straight in the 800m. That could be significant psychologically, considering that Theisen-Eaton is a major contender again here. (Don’t omit Theisen-Eaton from consideration, by the way. There are three double-barrels capable of taking gold here.)
Johnson-Thompson brings the confidence of youth. She is the European pentathlon champion, a multi-eventer so talented she came within a whisker of breaking the indoor world record at the age of 22. But consistency under pressure is something she struggles with far more.
As Ennis-Hill ground out her win in Beijing, Johnson-Thompson’s long jump famously imploded, when she failed to register a legal mark in that discipline and crashed out of the medal reckoning. She kept an image on her laptop screen saver of her last Beijing no-jump to drive her through winter training. Only at last month’s Anniversary Games in London, where she won the long jump, was there a sense that she had buried those demons.
For performances delivered, Ennis-Hill is simply the better athlete. Her personal best is 150 points better than Theisen-Eaton's and 270 points better than Johnson-Thompson's. That score dates from before her break from competition to have a child, though that is statistically insignificant considering what she has achieved since returning. Ennis-Hill set a long jump PB of 6.63m in Ratingen and produced the second fastest 100m hurdles time of her career.
Johnson-Thompson brings form, for sure. She has this year equalled her PB of 13.37 in the 100m hurdles and cleared a PB of 1.95m in the high jump. She is performing better than she has ever done, though the biggest challenge in Rio is thought to be her fitness. She was affected by an old leg injury earlier this year.
She will need to be in one piece and speaks with the air of one for whom victory over Ennis-Hill is more hope than serious expectation. “The achievement, hopefully, this year will be medalling. I'm being truthful, that's my aim. It doesn't change my head. It's easy to say but I know there's a lot I need to do to make that happen."
The older woman speak with a near maternal affection of the younger one but is certainly the one to beat: an athlete whose competitive intensity is as strong as ever, according to those who have observed her at close quarters these past few months. “She can be beaten, but she’s looking back to her best,” said Johnson-Thompson. “I want to be able to beat the best and that’s what she’s got on me — experience and age.”
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