Melnikova to beat Simone Biles? Top take-aways from the 2019 European Games ahead of Tokyo 2020

The multisport event gave us a glimpse at some potential Tokyo 2020 stars: Melnikova, Blichfeldt, Dina Averina, Timo Boll, Ni, Anders Antonsen... Get the eight biggest Euro Games talking points here. 

By Ken Browne

Tokyo 2020 is getting closer by the day, and the 2019 European Games in Minsk gave us a little glimpse into the future.

Here's who stole the show live on Olympic Channel, and why it really matters.

1. Artistic gymnastics

Could Angelina Melnikova really beat Simone Biles at Tokyo 2020?

There's no doubt that reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles is queen of the gymnastics scene right now.

The 4 Olympic gold medals next to her name speak for themselves.

But did Angelina Melnikova's sparkling display at the 2019 Euro Games show that she's ready to take on Team USA's megastar in Tokyo?

Melnikova's European Games highlights:

Melnikova was magnificent in Minsk winning two gold medals and two silver medals.

Her all-around was imperious but her finest moment probably came when she won gold on the uneven bars.

She wasn't even selected to compete at that event, as Russia already had uneven bars European Champion Anastasia Iliankova in the team, but an allergic reaction saw Iliankova rushed to the hospital and Melnikova brought in at the last minute.

The 18-year-old was loose and loving it. The fact that she hadn't prepared meant she just went out and expressed herself.

And she killed it.

If Melnikova can put herself in that same place again, where everything flows and it all happens so easily, then Olympic gold could be there for the taking a year from now.

But don't take it from us.

5-time Olympic gold medallist Nellie Kim is a big fan too:

Other artistic gymnastics highlights

Nina Derwael got mad. Then she got even.

A rare mistake on her uneven bars routine saw the world champion fall and finish off the podium.

She was furious.

"I was so mad with myself," she told Olympic Channel in Minsk, "Being mad helped me a lot to be more aggressive."

Darwael took that anger and turned it to aggression, putting in a dazzling display on beam, which isn't even her strongest event.

That gave her the gold medal she so badly wanted.

"I really wanted to end on a high note, I'm really happy I was able to do that."

That kind of reaction underlines why we may see her become Belgium's first ever woman to win an artistic gymnastics medal at Tokyo 2020.

In the men's event, David Belyavskiy was clear all-around winner and top performer.

Russia's Rio silver and bronze medallist looks like he's in the form of his life at 27 and with 'king' Kohei Uchimura turning 31 before the Japan Games (ancient in gymnast years) it may be Belyavskiy's moment.

There's something mentally very strong about the man who lost his parents as a boy, growing up in boarding schools and coming through the Russian system from a young age.

This was the parallel bars routine that guaranteed him gold:

Belyavskiy also won pommel gold in Minsk, proving his depth and diversity as a world-class gymnast.

Oleg Verniaiev didn't melt in Minsk.

Ukraine's Rio 2016 parallel bars gold winner and all-around silver medallist had a big operation on his ankle in January in Israel and surprised many by making the European Games in such good shape.

Verniaiev had a slow start and looked a bit down, saying:

"To be honest, I haven't been performing at high-level competitions for a long time. The last time I competed at a major competition was last year at the World Championships."

"That's why I'm a little bit rusty both psychologically and physically."

But it wasn't long before he found his rhythm, coming away from Belarus with gold in his strongest event - defending his Baku 2015 parallel bars title - and silver in all-around.

There's no doubt that - if fit - Oleg Verniaiev will stamp his class all over the Tokyo Games.

2. Rhythmic gymnastics

All eyes on Dina

What a spectacular European Games for Dina Averina, Russia's rhythmic gymnastics star, and she did it without her twin sister Arina here.

Special mention has to go to Israel's 20-year-old Linoy Ashram who forced Dina to be at her best.

Ashram grabbed gold in the ball event with this balletic, spellbinding routine:

But three gold medals, a silver, and a bronze at Minsk 2019 proved that Dina was in a league of her own in Belarus.

Arina will be back for Tokyo and, while they will be teammates in some events, look out for a fascinating showdown between the twin sisters.

3. Badminton

Will British and Danish dominance translate to Tokyo?

We saw some brilliant badminton in Minsk, with Team GB providing a big surprise and Danish dominance coming as no surprise.

Who would have thought that a funding cut would actually motivate a team to perform?

That's what happened with Great Britain in Minsk.

The British team had their budget trimmed after a poor performance at Rio 2016 and they were out to prove a point - and win back support - in Minsk.

They certainly did that, winning 5 medals from 7 events, two of them gold.

Rio bronze medallist Marcus Ellis won those two gold medals in the mixed doubles and men's doubles. He said:

"Since we lost our funding, the squad's a lot smaller but we're all very determined and trying to get the best out of each other all the time because we know that we're good enough."

Ellis & co. look good to mount a Tokyo challenge to Asian domination in doubles, but Denmark swept the singles finals.

The Danish production line is working overtime and the relatively tiny country is almost single-handedly providing the biggest challenge to Asian domination in the sport.

Rio bronze medallist Viktor Axelsen didn't make it after allergy and asthma trouble, but his teammates filled in ably.

Anders Antonsen may only be 22, but he proved his potential in Minsk winning the men's singles gold medal, his first big solo title.

He isn't quite as imposing as Axelsen - 1.83m tall to Viktor's 1.94 - but he's quick and relentless around the court with a massive jump, a scary smash and a silken touch at the net.

Definitely one to watch at Tokyo.

And if the Danes were excited about the men's winner, they must be doubly so with their 21-year-old rising star on the female side.

Mia Blichfeldt was a joy to watch and a nightmare to play against at the Falcon Club in the Belorussian capital: she roars, she screams, she pumps her fists, you can see she's smashed her fair share of racquets in anger.

"I'm a bad loser." - Mia Blichfeldt to Olympic Channel at European Games 2019

But bad losers often make the best winners, and Blichfeldt found a way to win despite a scare against Israel's Kesenia Polikarpova in the opening rounds, taking it eventually 9-21, 32-21, 17-21.

This is what she looked like after that match.

In fact, that scare seemed to sharpen her focus and Blichfeldt didn't drop another game in the rest of the tournament, beating Team GB's Kirsty Glimour in straight sets - 16-21, 17-21 - to clinch gold.

Look out for this girl, she's got game, focus, and attitude, much like her idol Carolina Marin.

They may even meet at Tokyo, and if they do, don't miss it.

4. Table Tennis

Timo Boll is Europe's best paddler

For an article like this you're usually looking at rising stars and young disruptors coming up who will smash the established order.

But that's difficult to do when the 2019 European Games table tennis champions were Germany's Timo Boll (38), Portugal's Yu Fu (40), and one of the stories of the Games in Luxembourg's Ni Xia Lian winning bronze at 55 years of age.

Can Europe's old guard challenge the Chinese dynasty that is Olympic table tennis?

That's a tough ask.

China have won every table tennis gold medal on offer at the last three Olympic Games, and with the likes of Ma Long, Zhang Jike, and Ding Ning, who have 9 golden Olympic gongs between them, it'll take a lot to break China's spell.

How has China been so successful?

Find out here:

Obviously, table tennis is huge in China, and so is Germany's 2019 European Games gold medallist Timo Boll.

He gives his own take on Tokyo 2020 here:

5. Cycling - Road & Track

Elation for the Netherlands, deflation for Team GB,

It wasn't the pedal-to-medal frenzy that many expected from Britain's 6-time Olympic gold medallist Jason Kenny at the 2nd European Games.

Just one bronze medal in the men's team sprint for him to take back to Britain, but Kenny didn't seem too bothered about how that might affect Tokyo 2020 chances.

"We're not worried" - Jason Kenny to Olympic Channel

"Preparation is going OK. We're not worried, we've still got one year and a bit to get some work done, so we are OK with where we are."

"European Games were an important step on the way and it's good to have experienced the atmosphere of a multi-sport event."

We also asked Kenny if becoming a father had changed him.

"It changed me a little bit, it put things into perspective. I think it helps, kind of, to keep going."

Don't write Team GB off just yet, when they get to top speed there are few faster.

Kenny could rewrite the history books once again at Tokyo 2020.

We also got used to watching streaks of orange lightning at the European Games as the Netherlands lived up to their continental cycling powerhouse tag - and some.

Lorena Wiebes and Marianne Vos set the pace early by coming 1st and 2nd in the women's road race, the prologue to what would become an exhibition in Dutch cycling.

They finished with 7 gold medals, 7 silver medals, and a single bronze medal in road and track.

So why are the Dutch so dominant?

We asked them...

We can expect something similar at Tokyo 2020 from the clockwork orange.

But it's not all about the Dutch. Russia won 13 medals overall and Italy 7.

One young Italian rider caught the eye, Letizia Paternoster has her sights set on a world cycling conquest of her own.

The Italian from Trentino races both road and track and won a gold medal in the women's team pursuit at the European Games.

Find out all about her here:

And another young track star emerged in the French team: Mathilde Gros won silver at 19 years of age.

That medal came in the women's team sprint and we got a chance to meet her in Minsk.

She told Olympic Channel a great story about how she was a basketball player until they came to her school with some watt bikes.

When they saw her power they thought the bike was broken.

"I started with basket at the age of 4, I loved it and it was my passion," she began.

"I wanted to become a professional basketball player, Then one day they brought some watt bikes to my school, which had a sports program.

"I was 14 and the coach made us try some sprints on these bikes. They saw I could push a quite impressive level of power for a girl of my age, up to 1200W, and they couldn’t believe it.

"They made me try with a different bike and I repeated those numbers.

"Before that I didn’t know anything about cycling, especially about track cycling. I only know the Tour de France, a bit of mountain bike…

"So, after the coach spoke with the cycling Olympic coaches, I was invited to Paris to try track cycling, I liked it and from September 2014, when I was 15, I joined the INSEP, France’s Sports Centre of excellence."

Now she's one of the most promising cyclists in the French ranks, and has delivered on that in Minsk.

Another promising young cyclist to keep tabs on in Tokyo.

6. Judo

Daria Bilodid's unstoppable rise and Fabio Basile's achy breaky soul

2017 European champion, 2018 World champion, 2019 European Games champion, 2020 Olympic champion?

Daria Bilodid is still only 18 but she's already the best in the world.

It's been an exhilarating rise to the top of the world in the judo -48kg and looks firm favourite for gold at the Tokyo Games.

Watch closely as she takes on Tokyo.

What drives her?

Find out here:

Fabio Basile: "My soul hurts more than my body"

The -66kg Olympic champion Fabio Basile stunned the world by winning gold at Rio 2016.

But it was his turn in Minsk as Azerbaijan's Rustam Orujov ended his tournament sensationally in the round of 16 at the European Games.

Basile had made the step up to -73kg class, but was brought down earth by a tidy ippon.

The next day he posted on social media: "My soul hurts more than my body."

Will Basile get that world-beating feeling back in time to defend his title in Japan?

He'll have to reawaken the lion inside:

7. Karate

Spain's king and queen of kata claim European thrones

Sandra Sanchez and Damian Quintero were heavily tipped before the European Games to take home kata crowns, and so it came to be.

World and European champion Sanchez has an amazing story to tell, at 33 she was told she was too old for karate kata and that she'd never win anything.

At 37 the WKF called her the 'greatest of all time', she's world champion, 5-time European champion, and now two-time European Games champion.

Sandra can't wait for Tokyo 2020.

And Spain has high hopes that both of these karateka will repeat the feat in Tokyo.

Karate kumite

While kata bowed down to the top two, kumite showed no such respect to the favourites.

This karate discipline thrilled crowds at the European Games with exciting bouts and big upsets.

European kumite powerhouse Italy was disappointed when world champion Angelo Crescenzo could only manage bronze.

Then Austria’s Bettina Plank produced one of the biggest upsets in her sport when she won gold in -55kg class on the final day.

The current European Championships runner-up defeated Turkey's Serap Ozcelik 5-1 despite the Turk coming into the fight heavily favoured.

A “Yuko” and an “Ippon” late on won the Austrian the gold medal.

Underdog Ivet Goranova upset upset another favourite in Anzhelika Terliuga of Ukraine and Italy did get some joy on the final day.

Luca Maresca claimed victory in Male Kumite -67kg. He wouldn't settle for any less:

“I am very happy because the last period was not very good for me. I am particularly pleased because at the 1st European Games I took silver. Here, I could not set for silver or bronze, I just wanted gold,” he said.

If the Olympics gives us half the entertainment and excitement that we saw in Minsk then we're in for a real show.

8. Shooting

Mother and son duo have sights set on Tokyo

One of our favourite stories from Minsk was watching mother and son team Nino Salukvadze and Tsotne Machavariani make the podium together.

The Georgians won bronze in the 50m pistol event and mother Nino is on her way to a record breaking 9th Olympics at the Tokyo Games.

But why do mother and have different names?

Nino told us that she kept her maiden name Salukvadze because 'Nino Machavariani' "sounded too much like an Italian man's name!"

Watch their story here:

So much to look forward to already at Tokyo, keep with the Olympic Channel for all the build-up as the countdown to the biggest sporting event on earth begins.


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