Olympics: Jessica Ennis-Hill’s showdown can be a highlight for Paula Radcliffe

Sheffields Jessica Ennis-Hill, left, will aim to repel the challenge from Katarina Johnson-Thompson. (Picture: Adam Davy/PA)
Sheffields Jessica Ennis-Hill, left, will aim to repel the challenge from Katarina Johnson-Thompson. (Picture: Adam Davy/PA)
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Former marathon star Paula Radcliffe casts her expert eye over what is expected to be a fascinating battle at Rio 2016. Dave Clark reports.

Paula Radcliffe expects the battle for heptathlon gold between Brits Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson to be one of the highlights of the Rio Olympics.

Sheffield’s Ennis-Hill is favourite to retain the title she won at London 2012 after claiming gold at last year’s World Championships in Beijing - although she is expected to face stiff competition from compatriot Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton.

The 30-year-old Ennis-Hill won her first heptathlon since last year’s World Championships in Germany in June, although her total of 6,733 points was 32 fewer than Theisen-Eaton’s world-leading score from the Hypo Meeting in Goetzis in May.

Former world junior champion Johnson-Thompson, who crashed out of contention in Beijing last year when she failed to register a legal effort in the long jump, highlighted her credentials by winning the same discipline with a leap of 6.84m at the Anniversary Games in London last month.

“I think there’s going to be some great events,” said Radcliffe, who will be in Rio as part of the BBC’s athletics coverage.

“I’m looking forward to the women’s heptathlon; I think that’s going to be hopefully a really great battle between the top girls there.

“If they get it right over the two days it will be great, so to see KJT at her best go up against Jess at her best and Brianne Eaton at her best will be really good.”

While Ennis-Hill and Johnson-Thompson are considered strong medal contenders for Team GB, Radcliffe also believes Laura Muir can cause an upset in the 1500m.

Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon and Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba are expected to lead the chase for gold, but Radcliffe sees no reason why the 23-year-old Scot, who clocked a new personal best of 3:57:49 at London’s Olympics Stadium last month, cannot compete for a medal.

“I think the women’s 1500 should be a good race and very interesting to watch this year,” added Radcliffe.

“I think we’ve got a good chance in the way Laura Muir is stepping forward and with Laura Weightman right behind her.

“I’m (looking forward to seeing Laura Muir) – obviously she’s in a really tough event.

“She’s certainly shown with the strides forward that she’s taken over the last couple of years that she’s really on an upward momentum.

“I think she’s got a very good racing head on her shoulders, the way she can think and make decisions within races and get it right at the Championships.

“In Beijing she was almost there and she walked away totally gutted and really wanting to build on that this year, and it will be exciting to see that.

“For me, rather than watching one individual person, it’s more the races – you really want to see a great race and a race that’s got you on the edge of your seat the whole way through, so that’s more what excites me.

“I look forward to something like the 1500m, men’s 800m, even the men’s 100m because it goes down to the last couple of strides to decide it.”

This is the first Olympics since marathon world-record holder Radcliffe, 42, retired.

She never won an Olympic medal after finishing fifth in the 5,000m in 1996 and fourth in the 10,000m at Sydney in 2000 before injuries blighted her performances in 2004 and 2008 and a foot problem forced her to withdraw from London 2012, but Radcliffe has no regrets.

“In Atlanta and Sydney my best shot wasn’t good enough for a medal and in the other two I lost out through injury. Probably the hardest one to actually take was not being able to make the start line in London and having it taken away so late in the day.”

Radcliffe will be one of the BBC’s guests at Rio 2016. The BBC will be showing more than 3,000 hours of live sporting action.