Mike Rowbottom

Many things are still unclear about the Dynamic New Athletics (DNA) programme that is making its international debut here within the 2nd European Games.

When will the format next be used? If and whenever that is, will it find greater favour from more of the sport’s elite performers, of whom there are a scattering involved this week?

As it has been put together to offer the European Games a workable vehicle for an athletics competition, following the low level athletics that took place in Baku four years ago, will it be the model employed at the 3rd European Games that will take place in Kraków and the Małopolska region four years from now?

The answer to all these questions is - no one can say at this stage.

Not the European Olympic Committees (EOC), whose baby the European Games is. Nor European Athletics, which has facilitated and funded those responsible for designing this new competition.

But here’s the thing. As a format, broadly speaking, it has worked well here.

Athletes are human beings, and human beings tend to have a default that resists change. Sometimes that instinct is entirely correct; sometimes not.

As track and field strives to - oh no, I think I’m going to use the E-word - engage (sorry) with - oh my God I can feel the Y word coming on - the Youth - along with every other sport in the Olympic ambit, there have been a number of bold sallies to create something snappier, more compelling, more TV-friendly etc etc.

A couple of years ago the Australian Athletics Federation had a crack at it by putting on Nitro Athletics, which had the additional attraction of Mr Usain Bolt as a competitor - an option sadly no longer available to track and field entrepreneurs.

This format had an elimination mile run, mixed gender relays, a three-minute distance challenge, plus team razmattaz.

Usain Bolt backed the Nitro Games initiative in Australia in 2017, but it has since to re-appear ©Getty Images
Usain Bolt backed the Nitro Games initiative in Australia in 2017, but it has since to re-appear ©Getty Images

Generalist media gave a positive response to the event, with the Herald Sun describing it as a "raging success". The reaction from specialist media was more mixed, however, with Athletics Weekly saying the ideas "have been tried before. Nitro Athletics has merely thrown them all into one meeting".

Athletics Australia announced that the planned 2018 series would not be held due to calendar constraints related to the Commonwealth Games being held on the Gold Coast in April.

The calendar, of course, is the ultimate arbiter in these matters. No matter how brilliant your new concept, no top athlete is going to put their main season’s goals in jeopardy to take part if it doesn’t fit in with their competitive programme.

This year, for instance, elite athletes in Europe and elsewhere are working out how to negotiate the final two-thirds of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Diamond League series before peaking for the World Championships that take place in Doha from September 28 to October 6.

Given those circumstances, it was no surprise that most teams fielded teams without obvious star performers, although the home team have fielded their very best and have so far been rewarded accordingly.

But let’s just look at DNA as a format for a moment - and then let’s reflect upon how that format became a reality here.

One thing that may have given this new idea a bad rep was the "trackathlon" which was duly trialled in last year’s test event using club athletes in Portugal. Involving a combination of running, shot put, hurdles and a standing long jump, this hybrid was dropped from the format before it saw the light of day here on Sunday (June 23).

The "trackathlon" had been developed after the devisers of DNA had been asked to include an element that would enable multi-event athletes to take part. In the end that proved an ask too far - but its disappearance may prove beneficial in convincing nervous athletes to come and try it in future.

So how did it feel to sit through all four opening qualifying matches, each two hours long, on the opening day of athletics at Minsk 2019?

It was never less than entertaining, if a little strange around the edges at times. And it was well received by the crowd, for several reasons.

Mixed relays are among the innovations of Dynamic New Athletics currently taking place at the European Games ©Minsk 2019
Mixed relays are among the innovations of Dynamic New Athletics currently taking place at the European Games ©Minsk 2019

One, naturally enough, was the presence of strong home performers such as 21-year-old European under-20 champion high jumper Maksim Nedesekau and javelin thrower Tatsiana Khaladovich. 

Home crowds like home victories, especially if they are delivered with the verve and nerve displayed by young Nedesekau. The roar that went up when he cleared his elected heights of 2.24 and 2.27 metres before having a decent crack at 2.33 was a bona fide athletics event noise, from a Dinamo Stadium that had a genuine feeling of atmosphere, even though it was not close to being full.

There were other high points. One such occurred in match two during the mixed 4x400m relay, where, after declaring their opening runner ahead of competition, team managers have the option of making up the running order on the spot with regard to the male and female runners left.

On this occasion Slovenia went against the flow and played their male runners early, hoping to create a lead onto which their two female runners could cling. So it was that Anita Horvat brought the baton home, pursued by five straining males.

Nobody watching such a spectacle needs a rule book to understand it. The response is almost visceral - and something of an athletics novelty, although of course mixed relays have been A Thing in athletics and other sports for a while now, partly to please the demands of the headmaster, Mr Bach.

The DNA event challenged perceptions about the sport. 

Belarus were the superior side in their match, earning a series of victories that converted to a time advantage in the start of the staggered match finale involving an 800, a 600, a 400 and a 200 metres.

They had about a 50 metres start. But in the end, in an event named "The Hunt", they fell prey at the line to the Czech Republic, who won by 0.02 seconds. 

Do you feel that is ridiculous? Or do you think it is exciting?

DNA had head-to-head rounds in the field events. Annoying - or intriguing? I’ll tell you one thing. With the best will in the world, watching an athlete attempt a high jump height at which he will have three attempts is very different to watching one where it is all-or-nothing. Concentrates minds wonderfully.

Tell you another. Having one event at a time simplifies and intensifies the experience of watching athletics. At some moments it occurs naturally in big competitions, where super-performing pole vaulters or high jumpers can sometimes find themselves the last to perform. But those heady moments are exceptions.

There is a strong team element to Dynamic New Athletics at Minsk 2019 ©Minsk 2019
There is a strong team element to Dynamic New Athletics at Minsk 2019 ©Minsk 2019

As European Athletics President Svein-Arne Hansen has been keen to point out, the DNA idea is an extra, an add-on - like Twenty20 cricket.

"It is great to see an athletics event where every single moment matters," he said after the test event.

"This new format complements the current sport and is different because it is not about world records or great times. It is about beating the opponent that is put in front of you."

"Complements" is the key here.

The nine events of DNA have their elements of novelty, certainly, but almost half the programme is simply using some of the most traditional and exciting of building blocks.

Men’s and women’s sprints and sprint hurdles. Traditional excitement. Nothing added, nothing taken away.

Similarly some of the queasiness engendered by innovations that were incorporated into last year’s IAAF Continental Cup in Ostrava, which I also attended, are simply absent here.

As a field eventer you still had the chance of producing the best performance of the day early on but losing because you didn’t keep winning your head-to-heads. But you were spared the dubious honour of effectively knocking out a team-mate because only one from each continent could progress. That was something that pained Croatia’s world and Olympic discus champion Sandra Perković in Ostrava.

Also there is no "devil take the hindmost" element. It’s an ancient athletics device going back more than a hundred years, but as it was applied in Ostrava it distorted races as runners surged desperately at the cut-off laps, and as top class athletes were successively ushered away from the track as if they had done something wrong. It felt, quite honestly, disrespectful.

Those elements are not present in this DNA product, which has pace and balance. There was a glitch in the high jump, however, for reasons beyond the control of the format’s creators.

For all the talk of it being a gimmick, events like the long jump still take place as part of Dynamic New Athletics ©Minsk 2019
For all the talk of it being a gimmick, events like the long jump still take place as part of Dynamic New Athletics ©Minsk 2019

The high jump, for men, comprises two groups of three, who take it in turns to challenge each other in head-to-heads, where they attempt heights they choose but keep from their opponents.

The analogy is sealed bids for houses. But then you have to clear the house.

This is athletics poker, to an extent, balancing chances for those who proceed by bidding conservatively and delivering with those who risk at greater heights. Thus in the final Denmark’s athlete Simon Hansen won after delivering on a personal best of 1.94 metres while Bohdan Bondarenko of the Ukraine, a 2.42m jumper and former world champion, missed out on 2.28m.

The problem here was a disconnect in the competition added by what I understand was the EOC’s late wish to have more than three medals awarded for athletics at its event. The decision to award gold, silver and bronze for best individual performances on the opening day - not wanted by European Athletics - was hardly publicised. Bizarre but true. Athletes finding out they were champions as they lounged back at the team hotel...

It also meant the high jumpers were conflicted - did they play the intended poker game, or should they just get a big jump in to make sure of a medal? Hence some of the huge discrepancies.

Who knows how it will all turn out? Not me.

But I can honestly say I am looking forward to watching the DNA grand finale on Friday (June 28).