Athletics: Jones hampered by cup's decline

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Max Jones, the UK Athletics Performance Director, looked preoccupied in the wake of the British men's unsuccessful defence of the European Cup over the weekend.

It was not the result that troubled him after two days of competition in the scorching heat of Florence. He had, after all, forecast that the men would finish in the third place they eventually secured after leading by one point overnight, and the women too had performed respectably to finish well clear of the two relegation places.

No. Jones's problem concerned the likely location for next year's competition - Bydgoszcz, in Poland, a three-hour coach drive from Warsaw. "If I can't get athletes to come to a place like this," he said, "what chance have I got there in Olympic year?"

With five of the six individual winners from the men's 2002 victory absent this time round, it would have taken something extraordinary for Britain to retain their trophy and that - pace wins from Chris Rawlinson, Mark Lewis-Francis and the 400m relay team - didn't occur.

The reasons why Dwain Chambers, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Backley, Daniel Caines and Colin Jackson were not present in the newly constructed Luigi Ridolfi stadium were various, but there seems little doubt that, had it been the World Championships taking place this weekend, all except Jackson - who had the feasible excuse that he has retired - would have been able to turn out.

Part of the problem here is that the European Cup is an event which would benefit from returning to the old biennial format that was turned into an annual one in 1993. Jones makes little secret of the fact that it is possible to have too much of what is, in terms of the experience it provides, a good thing.

Norwich Union have done their best to add extra reasons for British athletes to answer the call to competition by offering all winners and three other outstanding performers £3,000 bonuses. But that is not sufficient money to cause front-rank athletes to alter their racing plans.

UK Athletics has recently considered the option of offering athletes contracts which stipulate they compete at certain events, such as the European Cup. But the idea does not appear to have found favour either with Jones, or the UKA's chief executive, Dave Moorcroft.

Ultimately, Jones maintains, athletics is an individual sport, and individuals must be allowed to determine their best routes to peak fitness on key occasions.

The glow brought about by a European Cup victory, something Britain's men have achieved four times in the past seven years, lasts, in Jones's estimation, no longer than a fortnight.The achievements by which this season will be judged appertain to the forthcoming World Championships.

It may be that the perceptions about the European Cup will have to alter as it becomes, increasingly, a competition which either enables non-box office athletes to gain international experience or proves a convenient testing ground for more established performers requiring confirmation of form or fitness. In that respect, this year's event proved hugely beneficial for the likes of 110m hurdler Andy Turner, who finished fifth in his international debut, and Joice Maduaka, who competed well in both 100 and 200 metres.

It also provided an essential point of measurement for athletes such as Katharine Merry, making her return to international action after two years of injuries, and Iwan Thomas, who has seen four years undermined by injury but now appears on the brink of reclaiming some of his old 400m territory.