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June 10th, 2008


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06:12 pm - So near, so SPAR
I've long been a fan of watching the track and field action at the European Cup in Athletics, the primary competition held between teams representing countries. This year's competition will be the last under the European Cup banner with the current regulations; from 2009, the competition will be replaced by the European Team Championships, which are slightly different. After a quick search, I do not believe I have actually ever specifically blogged about this, which I cannot quite believe.

The European Cup in Athletics is a competition involving, generally, eight competing national teams of track and field athletes. Parallel distinct competitions are held for all-male teams and all-female teams. A team consists of no more than 25 athletes, participating in 18 solo events and 2 teams-of-four events. The 18 solo events are pretty standard: three sprint races (100m, 200m, 400m), two hurdle races (110m, 400m), two middle-distance races (800m, 1500m), three long-distance races (3000m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m), four throwing events (shot put, javelin, discus and hammer) and four jumping events (long jump, triple jump, high jump and pole vault). The teams-of-four events are relay races: 4 x 100m and 4 x 400m. Separate European Cup competitions exist for longer-distance races still (10,000m and longer), race walking competitions and combined event competitions (decathlon and heptathlon).

One athlete (or one team) from each nation competes in each event. The best performance in that event earns the athlete's team 8 points, the second best performance earns 7 points, the third best 6 points and so on down to 1 point for completing the event but finishing eighth. (Dead-heats split the points evenly.) Disqualification, or recording no mark as a result of every jump or throw being foul, earns no points. The aforementioned twenty competitions take place, usually over the period of two four-hour days, and the points are added; the team with the most points wins. Dead simple, nothing too fancy. Once every four years - in Winter Olympics years - the top two nations in the European Cup go on to compete against the USA and six slightly cockamamie continental teams in the World Cup, about which I got rather excited back in 2002.

Here are the changes coming up from the European Cup in Athletics, the last incarnation of which takes place later this month, to the European Team Championships, the first incarnation of which takes place next year:

1) The top divisions change from being eight-team to twelve-team competitions.

2) You can't have 12 athletes on the track at the same time in the sprints (100m, 200m and 400m), hurdles (both 110m and 400m) or relays (both 4 x 100m and 4 x 400m) so there'll be two six-athlete heats and the times from the heats will be combined to declare overall positions in each competiton.

3) The middle-distance 800m and 1500m races both take place with one big blobby 12-person start. (This is unusual for the 800m, which is normally staggered aroudn the first bend.)

4) The long-distance 3000m, 3000m steeplechase and 5000m races will be sped up by preventing them from being slow for every lap except the last followed by a one-lap sprint, On three occasions towards the end of each race, the runner in last place will be eliminated. I thought "devil take the hindmost" races went out of fashion years ago, but they might work here. Bit of a pity for athletes who like to pace themselves and sprint at the end, but if it makes for slow viewing, then the tactic must go.

5) Similarly, possibly slightly inspired by Formula 1's elimination-based qualifying system, the four throwing and two horizontal-jump events are chopped down to four rounds, but only the best-placed six athletes out of the twelve qualify for round three and only the best-placed four athletes out of that six qualify for round four. This ought to make these events more interesting for television, especially among the nations with weaker performers.

6) No more than seven jumps per athlete in the high jump and pole-vault, to cut down on "coming in at an early height to get a safe score on the board". I reckon this change won't have much as impact as the others.

7) The league structure changes from
 ------------------------- 
|                         |
| SUPER LEAGUE  (8 teams) |
|                         | 2 down
 ------------------------- 
       |            |        
 -----------   ----------- 
|           | |           | 2 x 1 up
|  FIRST    | |  FIRST    |
|  LEAGUE   | |  LEAGUE   |
|    A      | |    B      |
| (8 teams) | | (8 teams) |
|           | |           | 2 x 2 down
 -----------   ----------- 
       |            |
 -----------   ----------- 
|           | |           | 2 x 2 up
|  SECOND   | |  SECOND   |
|  LEAGUE   | |  LEAGUE   |
|    A      | |    B      |
| (? teams) | | (? teams) |
|           | |           |
 -----------   ----------- 
with two equal parallel divisions at the second and third levels, mostly arranged geographically. Promotion and relegation is as above: two down from the Super League, one up from each First League; two down from each First League, two up from each Second League. Now the Second League divisions can be rather fluid in terms of numbers, with the Athletics Association of the Small States of Europe entering a combined team. This year, one Second League has 8 teams in each of the men's and women's competitions, the other has... fourteen. Seems strange; I'm not clear why there isn't a more even split between the two leagues, nor am I clear why they aren't taking the opportunity to practice the new twelve-team format. (I also note that Israel also competes as a European nation, as in football and elsewhere.)

The aforementioned AASSE consists of Andorra, Cyprus, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro and San Marino. Small states all - you have to have a population under a million to be allowed in - but Andorra, Iceland, Luxembourg and Montenegro are submitting their own teams into the other Second League anyway, so I fear the AASSE is really there principally for the Games of the Small States and little else. (I note there is no overlap between the AASSE nations and the Island Games nations, who might otherwise contest the Games of the Even Smaller Nearly-States. (That's unfair; some of them are states. I defer to nationalist authorities.)

Anyway, the new league structure is simpler:
 -------------------------- 
|                          |
| CHAMPIONSHIPS (12 teams) |
|                          | 3 down
 -------------------------- 
              |
 -------------------------- 
|                          | 3 up
| FIRST LEAGUE  (12 teams) |
|                          | 2 down
 -------------------------- 
              |
 -------------------------- 
|                          | 2 up
| SECOND LEAGUE  (8 teams) |
|                          | 2 down
 -------------------------- 
              |
 -------------------------- 
|                          | 2 up
| THIRD LEAGUE   (? teams) |
|                          |
 -------------------------- 
This baffles me somewhat. Given that there are around 45 nations plus AASSE participating in the last European Cup, it seems plausible that there will be around 45 to 48 nations wanting to take place in the European Team Championships. Surely the intuitive way to arrange them would be into four leagues of roughly twelve? I suspect the second league will expand from 8 nations to 12 before long, assuming that it doesn't prove difficult for a nation outside Europe's top 24 to host 11 others as opposed to 7 others. On the other hand, if a Second League fixture can host 14 teams already, I don't think a scheduled 12-team fixture should prove too tricky. I note that there are 53 member nations of UEFA, but this includes separate teams for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who compete together in athletics, so conceivably there could be 50 athletics teams in the four stages of the European Team Championships. (Maybe Kosovo might be the 51st, or maybe Scotland might declare independence, or...)

An open question is why this rearrangement has taken place. I think there are three obvious theories,

The first is that the television product should be more compelling: more of the exciting sprint races, more action and overtaking in the middle-distance races, faster action in the long-distance races - especially towards the back - and the jumping and throwing events get some extra structure and excitement to them.

The second is that the events may prove cheaper to host and televise. Theoretically there are economies of scale that apply so that hosting a 12-team competition is not 50% more expensive than hosting an 8-team competition, but a nation might expect to have to host only once in 12 years instead of once in 8 years.

The third is more cynical. In recent years, rich nations like Spain, Italy and even Great Britain have been struggling with their athletics teams, whereas less rich nations like Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Greece have had strong athletic teams recently. (At this point I double-take at my own description of Russia as "less rich", but until the state-associated fossil fuel giants start TV stations that pay considerable dues to the European Broadcasting Union, less rich they effectively are. Perhaps "generously spending" is more accurate than "rich".)

Spain, Italy and GB have recently been bobbing between the top flight and the second division, or First League, and it can't be good for the national prestige, and thus TV ratings, of athletics in those countries for them to be out of the limelight. GB women had a one-season hop out of the top flight in 2007; I cannot remember whether their second division fixture was shown on TV or not. I cannot substantiate this and so may be wrong, but the GB&NI men may have finished seventh in 2005 and only been safe from relegation because the 2006 top division exceptionally had nine teams. The counter-argument to this is that with three teams going down from the Championships each year, it's still possible that a rich nation might find themselves outside the top 9 and thus be relegated for a year, much as they have often frequently found themselves outside the top 6 to avoid relegation, as has happened recently. Surely staying in the top 9 has to be much easier than staying in the top 6, though?

In short, the situation bears comparison to the Eurovision Song Contest where the "Big 4" nations (the UK, France, Germany and Spain) are guaranteed entry to the grand final simply because of how much they contribute towards European broadcasting. (Consequently, they don't need to worry if the song they submit is tatty old poop; consequently, or coincidentally, they have had more than their fair share of tatty old poop among their songs recently.) It's not very competitively pure, but it does make economic sense, and I can see similar processes widening their grasp of European competitions in the future.

((ETA: According to the former treasurer of the UK’s previous governing body for athletics, the financial health of the sport relies heavily on the successes at Olympic and World Championships levels of basically five European nations. Quote: "Most of the income to run European Athletics – and, for that matter, the IAAF [the world governing body] – comes from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and 80% of that income in the main comes from Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. So it is important to maintain the number of medals won by those countries at the highest level." In short, it does not so much bear comparison to the Eurovision Song Contest situation as, near enough, replicates it.))

In conclusion: that, Your Honour, is why England should be seeded directly to the finals of UEFA Euro 2012, for fear that we miss out twice in a row. Ahem...
Current Mood: geekyorganised

(7 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


(Deleted comment)
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:June 19th, 2008 04:21 pm (UTC)
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Interesting analysis of the effect of the DTTH; as the last-placed runners are eliminated with 5, 4 and 3 laps to go in the 3k (and 3k steeplechase) one might expect there to be a fairly continuous sprint with 6, 5 and 4 laps to go, after which things might settle down; in the 5k, with eliminations with 7, 5 and 3 laps remaining, I can imagine things slowing back down a little in the "off" laps between the eliminations.

If it takes off, perhaps the extent of these eliminations might be extended further in the future.
From:quintus_marcius
Date:June 10th, 2008 10:58 pm (UTC)
(Link)
This has made me quite annoyed. Almost as annoyed as I was ashamed that I had only made an indeterminate single figure number of comments on your journal in eighteen months.

Anyway. Twelve competitors in a laned track event is a nonsense. Are they really not going to have some kind of final? There is already a slight problem with qualifying heats in other competitions when combined with the fastest loser concept - the people running in the last heat have a distinct advantage in knowing the time they have to beat.

Why have a competition at all? At least with "All must have prizes" the poor and disadvantaged would actually get prizes as well as the rich and lazy. And there wouldn't be any need for performance-enhancing substances.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:June 19th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC)
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Performing a search on the export.bml.xml file, I honestly reckon you were on nine comments at the time. (Ten now!) Ditto lathany, ditto xorsyst, with devjoe on three, longtimegone on seven and matgb on five.

Twelve into eight: I would argue that the impact here is not too bad because the events where the problem could arise are all laned sprints where everyone will, theoretically, be going flat out all the time without any thought to tactics - probably the issue of whether people know they have a good chance to become fastest loser or not might imbalance the races further in practice.
[User Picture]
From:undyingking
Date:June 11th, 2008 08:37 am (UTC)
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Bah! I like the current European Cup format, with every event being a full final. Sprinting in two heats, the second of which is effectively against the clock, seems much less satisfying.

I'll be interested to see how the d-t-t-h plays out, though. I don't think I've ever seen that in a professional athletics event.

When the GB women got relegated, their next season was indeed shown on TV; but I remember being slightly disturbed that, in a strange 1984-ish way, no real mention was made that the reason they were winning loads of events in the European Cup this year was because they were competing against second-division opposition. Promotion was pretty much given, with the standard of the opposition, so the competitors just revelled in the victory margins.

Relegating 3 out of 12 sounds like a lot to me.
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:June 19th, 2008 04:18 pm (UTC)
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Relegating 3 out of 12 sounds like a lot to me.

Me too, though not necessarily in a bad way. It might also be fun to see the GB&NI team compete against the likes of, say, Ireland and Israel from time to time, too.

The other way to look at things is whether they might have extended the competition from eight teams to sixteen in a similar way. Perhaps sixteen on the track in the 800m and 1500m would have been too too many, plus it would have made the field events longer still.
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