Elimination racing in track and field is far from new. But it was new to Mohammed Ahmed on Sunday – and it felt, well, tough.
The decision to take out successive stragglers over the final four lap markers at the IAAF Continental Cup Ostrava 2018 was applied for the men’s and women’s 3000m and 3000m steeplechase.
The men’s steeplechase in particular provided a dramatic spectacle for the crowd in the Mestsky Stadium as Morocco’s world silver medallist Soufiane El Bakkali came to grief in the melee to avoid the first scheduled disqualification.
The men’s 3000m flat, however, offered the most compelling version of a mode of competition that has featured down the years in the sport, most often at indoor meetings.
First to depart, surprisingly, was the fastest man in the field this season, Asia-Pacific’s Birhanu Balew, after the prospect of an early exit had turned the distance race into a sprinting field across four or five lanes as the line approached.
Another of this Continental Cup’s innovations – the opportunity to play a “joker” on a men’s and women’s event each day which would double the points in the event of a team win – heightened the relevance of the next two eliminations, as they took out the two runners representing Africa who had been competing with this extra responsibility.
And as the four men left in contention set off with a measure of relief over the final lap, it was the Americas, led by the USA’s Olympic silver and world bronze medallist Paul Chelimo, and followed by Ahmed, who does his racing for Canada, that took the overall win with the first two placings.
At some considerable cost.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Ahmed said. “I just tried to survive. I really didn’t know what was going to happen.
“I thought a couple of guys would take it from the gun, but I knew we had eight really strong guys and it was going to take everything you had to not be eliminated. The guy who has dominated all season in the Diamond League got eliminated on the first time.
“That speaks about the value of the competition. I was trying to survive and it was a hard race. It was one of the hardest races I’ve ever run.
“But it’s good to be competing over here with Chelimo, who’s a guy I’ve competed against since way back, when I was 17, 18 – ten years ago. It was good to get some good points together.
“I think the elimination idea worked out pretty well for the flat events.”
Chelimo was also challenged by the format of the race.
“At the beginning they announced that Africa played their joker in the 3k, I knew it was going to be tough,” he said. “Because if a joker is played, that brings a lot of pressure. I really had to keep digging deeper and deeper and just coming home with the win was enough today.
“It was a good experience. But every lap, kicking for 40 metres, that really takes it out of you. When you get over the line you are like, dead, but you have got to keep going. It was really tough.”
A Sports Illustrated article dated 18 January 1965, on the opening meeting of that year’s US indoor track season – held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco – was headlined ‘A year of hope and devil-take-the-hindmost’ and included the following:
“The other competitive goody was an elimination game called devil-take-the-hindmost. This was a mile run raised to its most punishing, sadistic extreme. Starting with the end of the third of eleven laps, the runner in last place after each go-round was waved off the track until two runners were left. As each lap ended, there was a frantic scramble for position, the winners (the losers?) continuing the agony for another 160 yards.
"We were trying to figure out how to keep the crowd excited," explained Assistant Meet Director Payton Jordan, the Stanford track coach, before the meet. Jordan need figure no longer. The crowd loved the race.”
In Tallahassee, Florida there has been an annual devil-take-the-hindmost race for more than 30 years, in which, instead of officials politely waving red paddles at eliminated runners, there is someone dressed as the devil in red, with horns and a pitchfork, forcing them out of contention.
There are no plans at present, however, for the IAAF to adopt a similar strategy for elimination races…
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF