IAAF CONTINENTAL CUP
Sports commentator Rob Walker reflects on this month’s innovative event in Ostrava, while Mel Watman offers some strong views on the experimental rules
IWAS REALLY looking forward to working on the Continental Cup and although there were a host of new rules to remember, the weekend in the Czech Republic didn’t disappoint. Traditionalists will always raise an eyebrow (or both) when it comes to anything other than the usual formats, but as El Presidente Seb mentioned at the packed pre-meeting press conference at the Ostrava Metsky Stadium, surely the sport has to try new things and accept the inevitable criticisms when they come?
Katharine Merry and I always have a laugh whenever we commentate together and to be honest we spent most of the day before trying to test each other to check we’d understood how it was actually going to work!
In case you missed it, here’s what you needed to know about the weekend in a nutshell. Two representatives from each of the four continents contested every event, so barring the occasional non-starter, there were always eight in a line up. Eight points were awarded to the event winner, seven to second place etc down to one point for eighth. The points for both athletes were added together and the continent with the most points won the event. That led to their continent being awarded eight points towards their overall tally if they won with six for second, four for third and two for last place.
To add some intrigue and stardust to the weekend, each continent had a “team captain” who could nominate two joker events on each of the two days. It would obviously be an event in which their continent had great strength and a chance of winning. If they did so, the winning team points of eight were doubled to 16.
Following so far? Stay with me, we got used to it quite quickly in the end.
The Americas were led by long jump world record-holder Mike Powell, who spent most of the two days laughing and making up his tactics as he went along. Colin Jackson had the captain’s armband for Europe who were the defending champions. Our very own two-time world champion was typically diligent and armed with a clipboard, he kept a close eye on how the leaderboard was panning out.
Another double world champion, Jana Pittman, was in charge of Asia Pacific and also looked pretty relaxed and happy to be there and her fellow 400m hurdler Nezha Bidouane took command of the African continent.
In terms of the events themselves, the major changes on the track came in the 3000m and 3000m steeplechase which resurrected the “devil take the hindmost” principle. From four laps out up to and including the bell, the last athlete to pass the finish line was eliminated and if they carried on into the back straight, a judge showed them a race walk-style red paddle. The idea was that you would have five approaching the bell, but only four would contest the last lap.
And finally (I’m almost there) the field events, where on everything other than the pole vault and high jump, the changes were pretty radical. All eight athletes had three throws/ jumps. This was known as “qualifying”. The leading performer from each continent advanced to a one throw fourway “semi-final” in which all previous throws were disregarded.
Hence one chance to finish in the top two, who then went head-to-head in a fifth round. Once again all previous throws were disregarded, it was one effort to seal the win.
So that was our blueprint for the two-day broadcast, which saw two non-stop sessions with 18 finals on the Saturday and 19 on the Sunday. When there’s that much to remember and commentate on, both days went pretty quickly.
The hardest element to continually recall was adding the two athletes’ points together but remembering their individual points didn’t count for each continent’s total, they were merely used to determine which order the continents finished and then the team points of 8, 6, 4, 2 were awarded.
Perhaps the simplest way of doing it would be to award every athlete points to their continents’ score, that would have definitely made our lives easier in the box. But, hey, it was good fun and in many of the events we had two or three of the top performers in the world going head-to-head one more time before a wellearned autumn break.
In our first full post-Bolt season, it’s been a fine year and there was real quality on display in many of the events. The excellent crowd seemed to appreciate the best in the world visiting their city. It is also
“IT WAS GOOD FUN AND IN MANY OF THE EVENTS WE HAD TWO OR THREE OF THE TOP PERFORMERS IN THE WORLD GOING HEAD-TOHEAD ONE MORE TIME BEFORE A WELL-EARNED AUTUMN BREAK”
worth noting that many of those watching were young athletics fans who seemed to buy into the concept and that is absolutely vital for our sport.
In 11 years of commentating on athletics, it was the first time I’ve covered those elimination distance races and it certainly added intrigue that’s for sure! In most of the races, it was pretty obvious who was going to miss out at the end of each lap and once there had been a burn up to avoid elimination, the remaining pack slowed down for the next 100m or so.
It made brutal viewing in the steeplechase, where the weaker athletes at the back tended to be broken if they sprinted to survive one lap. They then slowed to a jog and some could hardly get over the barriers round the first bend as they were so full of lactic acid.
Having said all that, in both races the season’s outstanding performers, Beatrice
ChepKoech and Conseslus Kipruto, both won comfortably with enough time to celebrate with the crowd Ovett-style. In Kipruto’s case he was waving way before he had negotiated the final water jump! So despite the intrigue, the cream still rose to the top.
The one exception to this pattern was the men’s 3000m on the Sunday which was a very even field. In that one it was more a case of all eight spread out across the track all dipping for the line to avoid the chop.
The earliest casualty was the Ethiopian Birhanu Balew, who tried to stay on the inside and just misjudged it by half a metre or so. He was full of running and one of the favourites, but that was the end of his race. Was it a shame that we didn’t see the Lausanne Diamond League 5000m winner eyeballs out over the last 400m? Yes, but those were the rules and I suppose if it is to be repeated everyone would have to learn to adapt.
However, the field event athletes found the new system harder to get used to. With all previous throws/jumps disregarded at the end of qualifying and the semi-finals, it was possible for the athlete with the best throw or jump to finish outside of the top two. And that did happen on a number of occasions.
Plus with only one athlete per continent advancing to the four-way semi-final, it was also possible for the second best distance of the day to end up not advancing from the qualifying if the top two happen to both be from the same continent.
Sensibly the IAAF decided that in these events the prize money ($30,000 for each winner) would be distributed in the traditional manner with the best throw/jump taking the biggest sum, even if in the format of the competition they didn’t finish first. Perhaps another amendment would be
that the top four advance to the “semi-final,” even if that means there are one or two dominant continents. Certainly, there is plenty of room for debate.
Aside from the rules and the battle to finish on top which was won by the Americas who were just too good for Europe on day two, there were some brilliant performances. Abderrahman Samba dominated again at the end of a season which has seen him duck under 48 seconds nine times. Shaunae Miller-Uibo had to dig out a gutsy finish after a fine bend and penultimate
50m from Dafne Schippers in the women’s 200m. Sergey Shubenkov recovered from a poor start in the 110m hurdles and still ran an excellent 13.03 at the end of his season. And Noah Lyles also left himself a lot to do in the last third of the 100m, but chased down Bingtian Su just ahead of the line.
Overall I think it was a success. I doubt the IAAF are contemplating morphing the whole sport in this direction and I don’t think this exact format will resurface again. There must surely be further tweaks if the Continental Cup is to return again in some form in 2022. But the governing body are trying.
I first fell in love with this sport watching the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki in 1983 and commentating on athletics is the most satisfying broadcasting work I ever do. But these are testing times for the sport. The principles of what makes it great have to preserved, but some kind of evolution is vital surely.
This won’t be the last experiment and they won’t always be flawless. But we all need an open mind when we contemplate the future and what it may look like for the next generation of fans.
Rob Walker is a commentator who has worked on many sports including athletics
“WITH ALL PREVIOUS THROWS/ JUMPS DISREGARDED AT THE END OF QUALIFYING AND THE SEMIFINALS, IT WAS POSSIBLE FOR THE ATHLETE WITH THE BEST THROW OR JUMP TO FINISH OUTSIDE OF THE TOP TWO”
The IAAF Continental Cup featured some controversial rules
Shaunae Miller-Uibo: unbeaten in 2018
Conseslus Kipruto: steeplechaser won one of the devil-take-the-hindmost races
Caterine Ibarguen: jumps double