The Last Word: This gimmick must be given a straight red

Only the custard pies are missing as athletics turns into 'It's A Knockout' by eliminating back markers

The main stand in the Estadio Dr Magalhaes Pessoa was not a bad place to be last Sunday afternoon. The sun shone down on the second day of the new European Team Championships of athletics at Leiria in Portugal and the man on the public address system was running through an engagingly eclectic play-list. As Nelson Evora, Portugal's Olympic triple jump champion, got ready to rumble down the runway, we had the strains of Isaac Hayes and the super-chilled Theme from Shaft. At another point we had Barry Manilow blasting from the past to tell us about Lola and all the goings-on at the Copacabana, which is the hottest spot north of Havana evidently. Sadly, the 1970s set did not extend to Joni Mitchell and her Big Yellow Taxi.

The soundtrack was catchy and some of the other innovations were similarly successful, but the overall impression from watching this inaugural event was that the powers that be in European athletics did not know what they had got until it had gone. The old European Cup was not exactly paradise but it was a damned sight closer to it than the parking lot with which European Athletics, the continental governing body of the sport, replaced it – complete with the track-and-field equivalent of a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot.

For 43 years, the European Cup had offered a clear, concise format that was popular with the athletes, the public and the media: the eight best athletics nations on the continent contesting a full programme, with eight points for the winner of each event, seven for second and so on. In its stead last weekend we had a combined men's and women's competition, which was not a bad idea (even if Britain would have won the men's section, instead of finishing third overall, had the sexes been kept apart), featuring 12 countries instead of eight.

At distances below 800 metres, this necessitated two races instead of one, which is hardly a spectator-friendly streamlining of the programme. It negated the benefit of introducing a no-false-start rule in the sprints, which proved to be a popular success.

Where the meeting was always going to fail, and to descend into farce, was the introduction of the "devil take the hindmost" rule in the 3,000m, 5,000m and 3,000m steeplechase. At the end of three designated laps in each of these races, for men and women, the back marker was supposed to be "eliminated".

The trouble was always going to be both identifying the back marker and getting them to depart the scene, it being ingrained in the very nature of a 3,000m runner to run for 3,000m, not for 1,000m, 1,400m or 1,800m.

Thus it proved as Natalia Rodriguez of Spain sprinted to "victory" in the women's 3,000m on Saturday, only to be told she should have stepped off the track, having been lingering in last place at one of the "elimination" points. "I didn't understand the rules," she protested.

Britain's Steph Twell, who was promoted to fourth place, described the race as "a lottery". Even Gulnara Galkina-Samitova, the Russian who crossed the line second but was declared the official winner, was unhappy. "This new elimination rule should not exist," she said. "Everyone should race till the end."

What a brilliant idea. It is just a pity that European Athletics did not consider this in their haste to tear up the format of the European Cup and replace it with something closer to the slapstick action of It's A Knockout, the popular television contest of the 1970s which invited teams to eliminate the opposition by use of the custard pie and the water cannon.

Indeed, Stuart Hall would have been more at home in the BBC television commentary box than Steve Cram in describing the action in the men's 3,000m on Sunday. The crowd had already become tired of the comical concertina-ing of the fields in the longer races when a bunched sprint to avoid elimination ended with one desperate, mass scramble for the line and one runner hauling down two of his rivals to the track.

There were boos and hisses at such highly predictable pantomimicry. Portugal's Manuel Damiao was one of those who managed to escape the collision but he summed up the verdict of those stuck in the middle with the ridiculous ruling. "This elimination rule kills us," he said. "Me and many more just don't think this should ever be allowed."

It was quite some surprise to arrive home on Monday to find an e-mailed press release from European Athletics proclaiming that the new regulations had been "well received" and that the Portuguese crowd had "voiced their approval throughout the event". Looking out of the window, it was just possible to glimpse the tail end of a squadron of pigs flying down the Derwent Valley en route to Newcastle.

The popularity of athletics has been declining for years. Back in 1989 Gateshead International Stadium was packed to the rafters as the British men lifted the European Cup for the first time. At the same arena in 2000, when the British men won the trophy again, the gaps in the stands were already significant. And that was nine years ago.

The desire to reverse the process is understandable but desperate remedies such as we witnessed in Portugal last weekend are patently not the answer. As the headline on page four of Athletics Weekly put it on Thursday: "Bring back the real athletics of the European Cup."

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