Philip Barker

Next month, the gleaming Dinamo Stadium in Minsk will provide the setting for the first Europe versus United States athletics encounter in a generation.

Some 300 athletes will take part and, to try and guarantee capacity crowds, at least 10 members of "Team Europe" will be from Belarus.

Local organisers are delighted to have another big event so soon after the European Games. They haven’t spared the superlatives in promotion, calling it simply "The Match", insisting it will be a "spectacular confrontation of real titans and a vivid emotional struggle".

Minsk will be hoping for more fireworks, following its hosting of the European Games ©Getty Images
Minsk will be hoping for more fireworks, following its hosting of the European Games ©Getty Images

The season is still very much alive because of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Doha in late September. European Athletics President Svein Arne Hansen has insisted the competition in Minsk will give the season "an extra dimension of interest and could well turn into a regular feature on the international calendar".

"Team competition brings out the best in athletes," added Hansen.

Let's hope it proves more successful than that first meeting of the kind, held in the Canadian city of Montreal in 1967. Unfortunately, the weather was poor and the expected crowds failed to materialise. Organisers came in for criticism for poor promotion and many races ran behind schedule.

Even then, the idea of select teams taking part in a challenge match was not new. In the inter-war years, it was usual for athletes to stay a few extra days after the Olympics in order to compete in a match between the US and a combined team from what was then the British Empire. After the Second World War years, there was another variation on the idea with all-star inter-city matches.

Next month, cash prizes will be on offer. Victory in the individual events will bring a bounty of €7,000 (£6,300/$7,700) - all very different to the 1960s when athletics was still strictly amateur. To emphasise the point, the IAAF was then known as the International Amateur Athletics Federation.

Regional events had long been established. The first European Athletics Championships were in 1934. The Pan American Games began in 1951, but pretty much the only time Americans met Europeans at championship level was during the Olympics.

In 1965, a multi-nation European team event had been established at the urging of Italian official Bruno Zauli. It was named in his honour and generally known as the European Cup. Then, in April 1967, the IAAF European Council agreed on a match between a Europe select team and the Americas. 

Mary Rand was part of a Europe select team to face the Americas ©Evening Standard/Getty Images
Mary Rand was part of a Europe select team to face the Americas ©Evening Standard/Getty Images

This featured four competitors in each individual event. The American team was to be chosen in the wake of the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. Unsurprisingly it was dominated by the US, providing 57 of the 73 members. The Cuban athletes withdrew, ostensibly because the team had so many from the US.

Even the US contingent was not as strong as it might have been. A precondition of selection was participation in the Pan American Games, and despite entreaties to do so, many stars decided these did not fit their schedule. Notable absentees included middle-distance star Jim Ryun. He was therefore not chosen for Montreal either.

Those that did line up were said to be unhappy that they had not been issued with new tracksuits and were instead given sew-on patches to add to existing gear.

For their part, the European team included 11 from West Germany and eight from the East. Other members included Polish sprinter Irena Kirszenstein (Szewinska), and British long jumpers Lynn Davies and Mary Rand who had all won Olympic gold in 1964.

The team gathered in Frankfurt and flew to Canada. They did not stay in luxury hotels but in student accommodation at Montreal's Loyola College. As they tried to acclimatise, they were offered a sightseeing tour of the city - not the ideal way to prepare for a big competition.

Everything was to take place at the Stade Autodrome in Montreal, where a synthetic all-weather surface had been installed. Unfortunately, work was only completed 24 hours before the competition.

"I found it a bit springy and our team will have to adjust to it," said European 800 metres silver medallist Franz-Josef Kemper of West Germany.

"I think records will be broken here," said Italian Eddy Ottoz, 110m gold medallist at the 1966 European Championships.

Rainy weather on the opening day kept the crowd down to 7,000. Although conditions were damp, Vince Matthews won the 400m in a time that was only a tenth of a second outside the world record. It was the first time that season that he had beaten US team mate Lee Evans, gold medallist at the Pan Ams. "It's funny, this afternoon I didn’t feel like running," said Matthews after his victory.

Such was the strength in depth of the American team, Matthews was included only in the relay squad at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Evans went on to win the individual 400m Olympic crown in a world record time. Matthews did eventually succeed him as champion at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Another US star was Willie Davenport, who won the 110m hurdles, just as he did the following year at the Olympics.

In the women’s track events, there was no stopping Wyomia Tyus. She beat Kirzenstein by milimetres in the 100m. Tyus leaned so hard that she fell on the track as the race finished. "It was worth it to win," she said.

Bob Beamon enjoyed an epic long jump battle with Lynn Davies ©AFP/Getty Images
Bob Beamon enjoyed an epic long jump battle with Lynn Davies ©AFP/Getty Images

Long jumper Bob Beamon gave notice of what he was capable of, leaping 26ft 4in. He beat Davies and Ralph Boston, the two previous Olympic champions. Even so, he admitted he had surprised himself with his victory. Beamon had been working at what he described as a "poverty programme" in New York.

"We have a track camp there and I have been so busy I haven’t worked out in a month, unless you count an afternoon jogging," he said.

The following year, Beamon did presumably "work out" rather more. In the 1968 Olympic final, his phenomenal first leap (8.9m, 29ft 2.5in) ended the competition for gold there and then.

Ingrid Becker of West Germany won the women's competition in Montreal by a convincing margin.

The Americans led the competition after the first day, but victory overall went to Europe.

Sadly, competition was rather lost in all the excitement of Montreal's Expo 67. Presiding over it all was Montreal's ambitious mayor Jean Drapeau, who later masterminded the bidding campaign which successfully brought the 1976 Olympics to the city.

Attractions at the Expo included the Bolshoi opera performing War and Peace, the Kabuki theatre from Japan and the folklore ballet of Morocco.

"This is not a track meet, it is a circus," complained Belgium's 1964 Olympic steeplechase champion Gaston Roelants.

In 1969 they tried the format again. This time the match was staged in Stuttgart and crowds of 30,000 watched proceedings. Spectators included West Germany's President, Gustav Heinemann, and IOC President Avery Brundage. The team from the Americas was restyled "Western Hemisphere", though once again the majority came from the United States.

Olympic champion Madeleine Manning won convincingly over 800m and John Carlos won the 200m after two false starts to complete a sprint double.

The 400m hurdles silver medallist at the 1968 Olympics, Gerhard Hennige, was a winner in front of his home crowd. In the long jump, Davies exacted revenge for his Olympic loss as he beat Beamon. "This victory was something I'd wanted since the defeat in Mexico," he said. Once again, the Europeans won the match overall.

The idea of team athletics was expanded by the IAAF in the 1970s. An official competition brought together continental teams from across the world in a World Cup format in 1977. The initial event was staged in Dusseldorf, while Montreal hosted in 1979, this time in the Olympic stadium. There was a separate US team, while the other nations combined to make up a team called the Americas.

The competition was initially held every two years. It is currently a quadrennial affair and is known as the "Continental Cup", most recently in Ostrava last year.

The organisers of "The Match" in Minsk hope their event will capture the imagination in the same way as golf's Ryder Cup, surely the most successful of all sporting encounters between Europe and the United States.