Sports com­men­ta­tor Rob Walker re­flects on this month’s in­no­va­tive event in Os­trava, while Mel Wat­man of­fers some strong views on the ex­per­i­men­tal rules

Athletics Weekly - - News -

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


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



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

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