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GB & NI men's 4x400m
GBR 4x400 in Leiria


06 July 2009

Article by Ed Warner as seen in Athletics Weekly magazine.

In the middle of the furore about ‘devil take the hindmost’, let’s not lose sight of a solid result for the Great Britain & Northern Ireland team in Leiria a couple of weekends ago. Third place overall included a top ranking for our men, maintaining the position they achieved under the last running of the old format of Europe’s team competition, and a number of our women posted encouraging performances.

Charles van Commenee summed up the team’s showing as “acceptable”, and it is of course merely a stepping stone towards the World Championships in Berlin. Nevertheless, the team nature of the event gives the European Team Championships a particular allure – for athletes and spectators alike – and we clearly enjoy being one of its dominant nations.

What, though, of the inescapable fuss about European Athletics’ innovations? This year I was unable to travel with the team, so my experience consisted of 8 hours of coverage by a combination of BBC TV and radio – which, with no disrespect to the excellent Mike Costello, Jonathan Edwards and colleagues, raises the first problem. EA’s move to 12 nations and twin races in the sprints meant that the action felt too strung out – and with times compared across heats, insufficiently clear-cut.

The combination of men and women did not produce the runaway victory for Russia that some had forecast and can be deemed a success. EA does need, though, to look at ways of incorporating 12 teams into a more compact and less confusing structure. Holding heats for the sprints on either Friday night or Saturday morning would be one way to achieve that. Also, although personally a great fan of distance races, you have to question whether having both 3k and 5k races really adds to the occasion.

Ahead of the competition, most discussion centred on the changes to the field event rules, which in the case of the vertical jumps and their limit of four failures in total could be said to fundamentally change the essence of the event. As an armchair observer, I feel that the experiments were worthwhile although they could yet benefit from some tweaking.

Perhaps the throwers and horizontal jumpers towards the back of their competitions after two rounds should have one more attempt before elimination. But on the whole these events worked and did seem to receive the TV coverage in their final rounds that EA had hoped for. I certainly didn’t get the impression that I was watching delayed action as is so often forced on broadcasters by competition timetables.

The vertical jumps were a different matter. It’s hard to argue that excellence was prevented when Renaud Lavillenie posted a world leading 6.01m in the pole vault, but it did appear as though the new format put an ‘artificial’ ceiling on a number of athletes’ performances. Perhaps simply reducing the number of attempts at any single height from three to two would be more effective.

It is hardly controversial to conclude that the ‘no false starts’ rule was a clear success, with credit clearly due in no small part to the starters themselves. By contrast, let’s hope that ‘devil take the hindmost’ is swiftly consigned to the dustbin of history. I’m not convinced that EA does need to innovate in the distance races. Awarding extra points for those leading the race midway, as has been suggested, muddies the purity of the competition’s scoring. Why not, then, extra points for those leading at various points in any of the other events?

Overall, I’m pleased that European Athletics has been bold enough to experiment, and humble enough to invite honest feedback. At UKA we’ll play our part in helping to ensure that the process of refinement is effective.