Ill-devised rule ruined finest spectacle athletics can offer
August 30, 201112:00AM
GO on the B of the Bang. So said Linford Christie, who won the 100m for Great Britain at the Olympic Games of 1992.
But with the Olympic Games upon us next year, it's clearly time to amend that. Go on the A of the Bang, or maybe the N. It's not such a snappy phrase but you're less likely to get disqualified.
These days, you have no margin for error. No warning. No yellow card. One false start and you're out. Gone, finished, over. A year's work, four years' work, a lifetime's work: all gone in the space of the time it takes to twitch. The rule was introduced last year and it has devastated the World Athletics Championships in two days.
The championships began at the weekend in Daegu in South Korea, and the zero tolerance policy has played merry hell with British hopes and ruined the finest spectacle athletics has to offer.
On Saturday it was Christine Ohuruogu of Britain, the Olympic and former world 400m champion. A false start is rare in the 400m but she managed it: she has been in poor form this year and looked for a fast start but she overdid it, and so she went out without showing us what she could do.
Yesterday, Dwain Chambers, also British, was disqualified from a semi-final of the 100m, and he didn't even stand up and start running. He just twitched. Modern starting blocks have pressure pads: if you trigger them in any way at all, you are disqualified. Chambers was still in his crouch when he was red-carded.
And then came the 100m final: the race everybody in the world who cares the tiniest bit for sport had been looking forward to. Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history, was about to defend his title, the one he won two years ago in a world record time of 9.58. Here it came, the race of races.
Except it didn't. Bolt isn't a sprinter who really needs a fast start; his advantage comes in the last two-thirds of the races, when he opens up. But he is a man used to delivering miracles and no doubt wanted to bring us another. He burst from his block, realised his error, stripped off his Jamaican shirt in self-disgust and was gone.
Sport is an examination of nerve every bit as much as an examination of physical skills: that's one of the reasons why sport has such a hold over the imagination of the world. Rules are rules and an artificial thing like sport couldn't exist without that concept. But there are sensible rules and there are bloody silly rules.
The instant dismissals of Ohuruogu and Chambers were things you pitied the athletes for. Chambers is 33 and banned from the Olympic competition because of a drugs offence; we probably won't see him in a top-level event again.
Ohuruogu has laboured for two years only to be told not to run.
But with Bolt, we who watch were also victims: deprived of the greatest spectacle in sport by a piece of ill-judged pedantry.
It left Yohan Blake, another Jamaican, with a hollow victory. And it left us deeply disappointed.
Track and field athletics is beset by problems, and just about all of them are drugs. Few sports reward the drug-taker so well; few sports have worked so hard to catch cheats. But when people think of athletics, they think of drugs.
Bolt has been called the saviour of his sport: the man who brought back the joy. His performances in the Olympic Games of Beijing in 2008 and in the World Championships in Berlin the year after were among the finest things that I, or for that matter any one else, has ever seen in sport.
Now, because of an ill-devised rule, because of a depressing and rather inhuman policy of zero tolerance, athletics has spoiled the greatest thing it possesses.
Sport brings heartbreak: it's supposed to, and it does it often. It's right that losing should break hearts: but the same penalty surely should not apply to twitching.