Philip Barker

There will be two World Cup finals this weekend - France v Croatia in Moscow, and an Athletics World Cup at the London Stadium.

Although the London event is being promoted as "inaugural", the first official Athletics World Cup in fact took place in Düsseldorf more than 40 years ago.

"For the first time in the history of athletics, the world's best athletes will be able to challenge each other in a single major event every two years," said the promotional material for the 1977 event in the German city.

What is perhaps more surprising is that it came at a time when the sport was still run by men who were part of the very fabric of the amateur era.

Proposed by Hungarian Joszef Sir, a member of the council at what was then known as the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), it came in the mid 1970s at a time when the spectre of a breakaway professional circuit loomed large. Sir himself had been a sprint silver medallist at the strictly amateur European Championship in 1934.

The IAAF President in the 1970s was Eton and Cambridge educated David Cecil, Lord Burghley, Marquess of Exeter. 

The Olympic 400 metres hurdles champion in 1928, he embodied the "gentleman amateur" and trained by placing matchboxes on the hurdles. At his side was Adriaan Paulen, who had run for The Netherlands in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp.

Paulen would soon succeed Exeter as IAAF President and had worked closely with Italian official Bruno Zauli to introduce the European Cup team competition in 1965. 

This proved successful, and, after American television expressed an interest, the IAAF announced in 1975 that "a World Nations Cup might be held from 1977 on, a few weeks after each European Cup".

At this stage, the IAAF did not even have its own World Championships. The Olympics were a de facto World Championships.

The federation's newsletter reported "the creation of a sub-committee to study the possibility of establishing World Championships".

There were some long-standing meetings but nothing like the Golden League or Diamond League to provide a circuit offering regular competition.

The Athletics World Cup will take place in London this weekend ©Athletics World Cup
The Athletics World Cup will take place in London this weekend ©Athletics World Cup

In 1976, the IAAF gathered in Montreal for their pre-Olympic Congress. Paulen was duly elected IAAF President. The World Cup was accepted and the regulations for an eight team competition were drawn up. Paulen insisted it would "provide a feast of athletics and offer additional world-class competition between Olympics".

With IAAF treasurer Fred Holder, Paulen set about financing it. For the first time, the IAAF engaged an agency marketing firm called West Nally to secure sponsorship of $1 million (£760,000/€860,000).

"It was all Paulen, he was very much the man behind the Düsseldorf World Cup," said Patrick Nally, the man charged with persuading backers to sign up.

"He was very well aware of the issues of amateurism. He was more open, he was a visionary and extraordinary for his age. He knew he had to accept that amateurism was something that needed to change, or the pro circuses would have come in."

There was no single sponsor but with television keen to be involved, the overall profit was 1.2 million Deutschmarks. West Nally also arranged for an official film to be made of the event. It was the start of a revolution in the way athletics was presented.

"The World Championships are still the Olympics but we see the World Cup as an opportunity to give additional status to our sport," said the IAAF's general secretary John Holt. "Any money made from the fixture would be ploughed back into various amateur federations."

The line-up for Düsseldorf included the national team of the United States, having obtained the best results at the last Olympic Games.

Continental teams were from Africa, Asia, Oceania and "Americas", which comprised Canada, Central America and the Caribbean along with South America.

Europe was also represented by a combined team but the top two nations in the 1977 European Cup in Helsinki were also invited. In the women's competition this meant East Germany and the Soviet Union, and it was East and West Germany in the men's. The presence of the host nation no doubt helped swell attendance which reached 135,000 for the three days of competition.

The added attraction was that the competition would bring together many athletes denied the chance at the 1976 Olympics. At the Montreal Games a New Zealand rugby tour of apartheid South Africa had been the catalyst for "an eloquent protest" as one African official described the boycott.

"We've got used to seeing the best come together but at the time it was a rare opportunity to see many of the world's best," was the assessment of Peter Matthews, the editor of the International Track and Field Annual, who was to attend every IAAF World Cup meeting. 

"Yes an artificial formula, but it was a really good meeting."

John Walker of New Zealand and Steve Ovett of Britain dueled in the men's 1,500m at the first World Cup in Düsseldorf ©Getty Images
John Walker of New Zealand and Steve Ovett of Britain dueled in the men's 1,500m at the first World Cup in Düsseldorf ©Getty Images

Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia had missed out on the Montreal Olympics as a result of the boycott, but in Düsseldorf he showed what the world had been missing with a fantastic performance to win the 5,000 and 10,000m double. He was so taken with his orange African vest that he wore it at the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

The first World Cup race had been the 400m hurdles, won by Olympic champion Ed Moses. He beat his great rival Harald Schmid to launch himself on an unbeaten run that would eventually stretch nine years and 122 races.

Cuba's Alberto Juantorena astounded the world with a phenomenal double at the 1976 Olympic Games. In Düsseldorf, he represented the Americas in an epic 800m against Kenyan Mike Boit racing for Africa. Juantorena won in 1min 44.04sec, his margin of victory extremely slim.

The following day, Juantorena appeared not to hear the starter's gun or believed that a false start had taken place in the 400m.

When he discovered there was no call back, Juantorena tore after the field but there was too much to do. East German Volker Beck crossed the line first. Juantorena still finished third.

"Juantorena is too experienced to have reacted as he did without some mitigating occurrence causing it," said Americas team manager Herb McKenley, himself an Olympic 400m silver medallist as he filed a protest.

"I might add I cannot think of anyone else in the world who would run so bravely in the circumstances."

A re-run was ordered to the chagrin of Beck. This time there were no problems, although Nigerian Felix Imadiyi and Australia's Rick Mitchell did not start. Just as he had done at the Olympics, Juantorena completed the double.

In the men's 4x100m relay, the US quartet of Bill Collins, Steve Riddick, Cliff Wiley and Steve Williams set a time of 38.03, the only world record of the meeting.

The men's 1,500m saw John Walker, New Zealand’s Olympic champion, run in the yellow and black of Oceania, complete with expansive sideburns. He was upstaged by a young Briton running for Europe called Steve Ovett. Walker pulled out before the end as Ovett cruised down the home straight to victory.

The women's 400m was highly symbolic. It featured the late Irena Szewinska of Poland, at the very end of her career. She went head-to-head with rising East German star Marita Koch, 11 years her junior. Although Koch led for much of the race, Szewinska edged ahead in the last 50m to win. "Irina is still the greatest," said Koch afterwards.

In the women's javelin, Olympic champion Ruth Fuchs of East Germany seemed out of sorts. After four rounds, she was down in fourth place, but she recovered in the final round with 62.36m. "I failed totally in my first five throws. In the last round I won because I fought," she said.

Irena Szewinska of Poland, left, races East Germany's Martia Koch in Düsseldorf ©Getty Images
Irena Szewinska of Poland, left, races East Germany's Martia Koch in Düsseldorf ©Getty Images

A darker side of the East German sports machine was to be seen in the women's shot. Winner Ilona Slupianek threw 20.93m. She was later disqualified after a positive test came to light.

Even so, the East Germans, captained by shot putter Udo Beyer, lifted the inaugural men's World Cup and Szewinska was a popular choice to receive the women's trophy for Europe.

From then on the World Cup was staged every two years but after the World Championships began in 1983 and became established, the impact of the event diminished. A more serious body blow came when the World Championship became biennial in 1993.

As the calendar became ever more crowded the competition began to lose some of its shine. After all, it had been created partly to fill a gap when there was insufficient international competition.

Since 2010 it has been re-titled the IAAF Continental Cup and later this this year it will take place in Ostrava, where the original trophy from 1977 can be seen at a special IAAF Heritage exhibition in the town.

"It has to be admitted it is an unusual and somewhat artificial formula. However it exceeded all our expectations," said Paulen in 1977.

The organisers of this weekend’s World Cup in London would love to be able to deliver the same verdict.