Mike Rowbottom

Engagement with The Youth. How many times have we seen or heard that phrase in recent years, expressed by the silver-haired guardians of our most valued sports?

By any optics, what has just taken place here in this Spanish coastal city of Castellón ticks that box. 

The inaugural European Dynamic New Athletics (DNA) U20 Clubs competition involved, as its name implies, The Youth. It was also witnessed with enjoyment, I can personally vouch, by many others who fitted into that sacred category.

And, dare one say it, some who didn't.

The format was the innovative variant of the sport created by European Athletics in time for a first official outing at the 2019 European Games in Minsk.

There are those in athletics who are ambivalent about, or even antagonistic towards, this re-purposed model, which seeks brevity - the team-based matches are typically two or two-and-a-half hours long - and simplicity - in that only one event goes on at a time.

There is, admittedly, some complexity to the model. But these complexities, I believe, are justified by the novelty that they bring to one of the most ancient of sports.

Crucial in the navigation of these nuances is the team coach. In addition to encouraging and inspiring his or her charges, the coach decides how to deploy the two male and two female runners in the mixed 4x400 metres relay, with the order being open to change  until the last minute.

In Minsk this event created one of the high points of the competition as Slovenia gambled successfully by running their two men first and hoping the lead would be sufficient, which, to the noisy satisfaction of those within the Dinamo Stadium, it was.

One variant is enough to create a completely different dynamic to the event. For instance, in yesterday's A final - in which Turkey's Enka Sports Club narrowly beat Blackheath & Bromley to the first title - the latter team was the only one to field a female runner in the opening leg, with their first male runner, Michael Uzozie, competing against five women in the second leg.

Uzozie made up huge ground to put Blackheath & Bromley back in contention, handing over a close fourth. As it happened, the London club could not improve upon that - but it was diverting watching them try.

This was after all billed as an effective test event for the future direction of this format, and while the competition was keen the whole was conducted in a spirit of exuberance, with smartly chosen music and branding helping things along. 

Much whooping and shouting, and even some drumming, came from the respective teams and related supporters as they encouraged their fellow competitors.

Amidst the fun there were some top-class performances - notably from Blackheath & Bromley's European under-18 200m champion Faith Akinbileje, who reduced her 100m personal best from 11.77 to 11.53, bettering the club’s under-17 record of 11.54 set by the 2019 world 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith.

Coaches also give on-field advice in the men’s high jump, where the athletes must nominate the height they will attempt for each of their three attempts in the head-to-head competition. In the weekend's competition this took the form of a simultaneous televised reveal using tablets.

The competition reaches its culmination in The Hunt - a staggered-start medley relay comprising a women's 600m, a men's 400m, a women's 200m and a men's 800m. With the relative scores of the teams converted into starting-time differentials - every three points of advantage earning a second - the points calculations drop away like a spent rocket section.

It is all about who crosses the line first. And yesterday the excellence of the last leg runner Samuel Reardon moved the British team, who had begun almost 12 seconds down on Enka, and almost six seconds off second-place AK Skoda from the Czech Republic, back up to second place, just four seconds adrift of winning.

Had Blackheath & Bromley not been disqualified for a false start in the 110m hurdles that margin might have been even smaller. Although Turkey's 800m runner Bahri Drogu had plenty to spare at the end as he began his celebrations early...

The weekend's event - which followed a well-received senior indoor tournament earlier this year in Glasgow - carried excellent commentary and was available to view on the European Athletics YouTube channel and Eurovision's All Athletics platform as well as being heavily covered on social media. 

As those behind the format have consistently said, DNA is not designed to usurp or displace traditional athletics, but to complement it.

Before the event in Castellón, which involved two home teams and 10 from other nations, European Athletics vice-president Libor Varhanik, the DNA project steering group chairman, said: "The Glasgow event and, before that, the 2019 launch in Minsk established that elite, senior athletes and hardcore fans really enjoy DNA once they experience it and see what it is all about. 

"Now we want to learn how well we are reaching two very specific target groups: U20 club athletes and younger potential fans who will be watching on their smartphones. The results will help inform us of the direction we need to take in the future."

A related international conference will take place online October 13 and 14. Entitled "Team Athletics: The Sport’s New Offer", it will provide an opportunity for athletes, coaches, club and school leaders from across Europe to contribute their views on how DNA and classical athletics can work in parallel.

Spain won a DNA test event in Glasgow earlier this year ©Getty Images
Spain won a DNA test event in Glasgow earlier this year ©Getty Images

It should be noted, in passing, that six of the 30 teams who qualified for those 2019 European Games baulked at the idea of taking part in the new format, and chose not to compete - Britain, Finland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Belgium.

Over the past weekend, Blackheath & Bromley and Norway’s Oslo and Akershus played a key part in the competition.

One clue to the future of DNA was offered by Frank Carreras, President of the Gibraltar Athletics Federation and of the Athletic Association of Small States of Europe, who was among officials present for the competition.

"We can see this format working very well for the small states and younger athletes too," he told insidethegames. "It can be ideal for second- and third-tier athletes, for those who perhaps can't make it to the very top, although the competition is open to all including elite athletes. 

"You can have different events if you want - you can have more field events than track events, it is very flexible.

"This is a valuable new form of competition for a potentially huge number of young athletes - and competition for athletes is paramount in their development."