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."

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin