January 2009
FACED WITH DWINDLING TV NUMBERS and fearful of losing the next generation of fans, the European Athletic Association (EAA) has come up with some “radical” changes in presentation for what used to be the European Cup, which at one time was one of the great team competitions going. The new meet, quixotically named The European Team Championships, will attempt to make the sport more accessible to the general public.

None of the ideas are particularly new, and range in my humble opinion from decent to really stupid. Let’s look at some of the talking points, because they’re relevant at all levels of the sport:

A no false start rule. Thumbs up. The IAAF should have gone straight to this which a quarter century of high school and collegiate competition have proven to be a winner from the get go, rather than the half baked first falsie on the whole field stricture they went with instead.

Lane races to be staged in 2 heats of 6. No no no! Anything other than direct head-to-head competition is a loser.

The steeplechase, 3000 and 5000 will all be contested so the last athlete in the race will be booted in the last few laps. On the surface, this sounds wonderfully exciting, but as one who saw this “devil take the hindmost” concept fried at innumerable U.S. indoor meets in the ‘70s replete with a devil suited dude with a pitchfork let me say that the reality doesn’t live up to the exciting image. And if it didn’t work indoors, with lots of laps to deal with, it has no chance outside.

The vertical jumpers will be restricted to 4 misses total in the whole competition. Been there, done that. Not exactly the same, but in the “innovative” ITA (the failed early ‘70s pro league) there was a fixed number of attempts. The result? Everybody starts too high and the fans are treated to a steady procession of misses. Bad theater all around for an event that would be better if everybody and I kid you not were indeed allowed 4 misses... at each height! The fans love the verticals, miss or make. Do the people who make up these rules ever actually sit in the stands and see what works with the paying customers?

In the other jumps and throws, everyone is restricted to 4 attempts. I’ve long argued that 6 is too many, with rounds 4 and 5 more often than not featuring uninspired jumping and throwing.

In the other jumps and throws, all the performers get the first 2 attempts, then the top 6 get 1 more try, then the 4 best get 1 last try. Wow! I’ve been suggesting a staggered cutdown like this for years. With this kind of system, I could even live with going back to 6 rounds, so long as you rapidly cut the number of competitors. One doesn’t tire of seeing the superstuds; one does tire of the spear carriers.

Having said all that, I would note that my comments are made out of fear that some of these “innovations” might bleed over to regular meets. Even the objectionable ones I find somewhat palatable in the context of a tightly hewn team scoring meet where an athlete is expected to subjugate personal desire to the good of the team as a whole.

I’m not alone in being troubled by these new proposals. Peter Matthews, highly respected editor of both the British newsletter Athletics International and the ATFS Annual, had this to say:

“One can but despair at the politicians of the European AA. Change may be welcome, but change for change’s sake can be very dangerous. The continuing decline in European [track & field] is very worrying, as is the lack of interest in the sport from TV companies, but panic is hardly a recipe for success.”