Baton-drop hands Slovakia Athletics gold

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Baku, June 23, AZERTAC

Slovakia took team gold in Athletics at the Olympic Stadium in Baku on Monday, beating Austria in dramatic style by just 0.5 points to go up as champions from the Third League of the European Athletics Team Championships.

A dropped baton in the final event of the two-day contest cost Austria victory as Slovakia's 4x400m relay men stormed home in first place to take their final total to 458.5 as the Austrians trailed home sixth, too slow to hang on to first spot.

Austria lodged a protest over the final results, but it was rejected and Slovakia was confirmed as gold medallist.

Israel finished third overall to win the bronze medal with 439 points.

Azerbaijan were denied the coveted fourth promotion place to the Second League despite crowd-pleasing wins from Hayle Ibrahimov in the 3000m - his third in two days, and greeted with raucous cheers and trackside flames - and local hero Nazim Babayev, who came up trumps with a last round leap of 16.38m to beat his Moldovan rival Vladimir Letnicov by just 4cm.

Unfortunately for the home crowd, that wasn't enough, as Moldova finished fourth on 401, a safe 14 ahead of Azerbaijan.

Austria had held an 11-point lead over Slovakia overnight but was reduced to 6.5 with only the final 4x400m relays to come, while Azerbaijan were 12 behind Moldova with it all to play for in the battle for fourth.

Slovakia's women did all that could have been asked of them by winning the first race in a national record of 3 minutes, 35.03 seconds. But Austria chased them home in second to maintain a 5.5-point lead with the men's race to come.

Austria's men merely had to stay within six places of their Balkan rivals in the final event and were comfortably within reach when their second runner Gunther Matzinger dropped the baton while trying to overtake at the top of the home straight.

By the time he had picked it up, Austria were five places adrift of Slovakia who overhauled leaders Israel to take the maximum 14 points. Austria appeared to have done enough by finishing sixth but their time was slower than the Georgian team's from the first heat, so worth only eight points.

The Austrians couldn't believe it; nor could the Slovaks.

"It's really awesome. We were fighting till the end," said final-leg runner Martin Kucera. "Anything can happen in athletics. You never know who is going to win.

"My legs just turned to jelly at the end. I just couldn't hold them."

"We are Slovakia, we were fighting to the end in every discipline," added team-mate Jozef Repcik.

Indeed they were, as the battle for gold between the two principal contenders raged throughout the day. The gap was briefly reduced to three points, and never stretched to more than 13, but Austria kept their noses in front thanks, partly, to their two big-name athletes who both produced the goods when needed.

London Olympic finalist Beate Schrott ran a season's best of 13.18 to win the 100m hurdles while the experienced Gerhard Mayer out-threw the opposition to take 14 points in the men's discus.

A late victory for Anita Baierl in the women's 5000m gave them the advantage before the relays despite a late victory for Patrik Zenuch in the men's javelin to keep Slovakia in touch.

In the end, being in touch was just enough.

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