By 8pm on Wednesday night, we all ought to have a much better idea of the form of Mo Farah, the world champion at 5,000 metres, ahead of the London Olympics.
It may be Olympic year, but the Blazerati who run European athletics have, in their wisdom, decided to double the frequency of European Championships and stage the continental event once every two years. Thus the 2012 Championships start in Helsinki, Finland, on Wednesday morning, with the London Games just 31 days away, hurtling towards the world’s track and field athletes like a juggernaut.
As such, the usually prestigious European Championships have been rendered little more than a warm-up meet for the Olympics, with most athletes better focused on their national Olympic trials or in grasping a last chance to get a qualifying performance.
Men's 5,000m Final
The sole final on Day 1 is the men’s 5,000m, where Farah is defending the title he won in Barcelona in 2010, and which he backed up in thrilling style by taking the world crown in Daegu last August.
Farah is the fastest European in 2012, having run 12min 56.98sec earlier this month; 16sec faster than anyone else has run in Europe this year. As such, his odds don't offer great value, at 1.02.
Farah’s closest rival is German champion Arne Gabius, who at 31 recently reduced his best by more than 13sec when he clocked 13:13.43 at the Bislett Games in Oslo. He's a shrewd bet to medal at 1.75 here.
France’s Yohan Durand is another revelling in his best form to date. With PBs at 1,500 (indicating good potential finishing speed), 3,000 and 5,000, Durand ought to be in the medal chase over the final couple of laps, in what is likely to be a slow-run race. Again, take him to reach the podium at 2.00.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s Haile Ibrahimov took bronze in Barcelona two years ago, and is at 2.50 to repeat a medal trick. He has set two national records this year, but was beaten in Lille recently by Durand, and may struggle to reverse that form.
The men’s 100 metres is always a highlight of any championship meeting, and it should also provide one of the shortest priced winners in France’s Christophe Lemaitre, who is available at 1.30 for gold. The defending champion will not even have the distraction of the media circus surrounding Dwain Chambers – European champion 10 years ago – and the question of whether the ageing Briton still has it in his legs to run the Olympic qualifying time. Chambers has not even been picked to race the individual event in Helsinki, and the British charge will be led by Mark Lewis-Francis, whose fluctuating form means he's unworthy of a punt, even at 8.00 for a medal.
Best contested of the events which get underway today will be the men’s javelin. The national sport of Finland – if you don’t include ice hockey – the javelin has its qualifying round centre stage this evening, when Norway's defending champion Andreas Thorkildsen (priced at 2.25 for gold), will flex his muscles alongside Finnish hero Tero Pitkämäki (13.00) and Vitezslav Vesely, the Czech who leads the 2012 world standings and can be backed for the title at a tempting 2.50.
Thorkildsen has only thrown 84.72 metres this summer but he can boast two Olympic golds, a world title, three world silvers and two European golds. With Pitkämäki struggling for form this season (his 83.87 at the weekend saw him as a late addition to the Finnish team), back another gold for Norway. Interestingly enough, favourite Thorkildsen is at a tighter than tight 1.75 for gold at London 2012 - this week's performance will tell us a lot about the value of that price.
But for the purposes of gaining some value when betting on this championship, combine Thorkildsen with Farah and Lemaitre, and you have the makings of a decent treble over the opening couple of days’ competition.
Another example of the devaluation of this championship can be seen in the relative weakness of the Russia team, especially in the women’s competition. That will be plain when the heats of the women’s 100m get underway on Wednesday.
The Russian Olympic trials have clearly taken precedence, with a host of more established runners taking a rain-check on proceedings in Helsinki. As such, Russia’s rookie entries Yevgeniya Polyakova and Olga Belkina, while looking like possible finalists, don’t seem like medal material.
Verena Sailer, Germany’s defending champion, is coming into form with an 11.19sec clocking on June 9, backed up by a wind-assisted 11.13 heat. She's available at 4.50, which makes her second favourite for gold behind Ukraine's European rankings leader Oleysha Povh, at 2.75.
Povh has run 11.08, and if she can reproduce that form, a metre quicker than Sailer, then no one will beat her.
The women’s sprints will at least provide a couple of encouraging examples for, let’s say, older sports fans. France’s Christine Arron, the 1998 European 100m champion, lines up at the ripe old age of 38, and is well worth a flutter at 4.50 to medal.
But the golden oldie prize goes to 52-year-old Merlene Ottey. The Jamaican-born multi-Olympic medallist, now racing for Slovenia, will run in the sprint relays at the weekend. But while she's unlikely to trouble the front runners anymore, she'll no doubt attract the attention of most photographers when she steps out onto a Helsinki track that she first graced 29 years ago, in 1983, at the first World Championships.