Track fans, athletes wish false-start rule was one and done
By Joe Battaglia,
15 June 2011
What happens when you combine the fastest, most competitive runners in the world, starters with inconsistent trigger fingers, high-stakes races on the biggest stage in all of sports, and a no-mercy rule that could render an athlete a spectator in fractions of a second?
Beginning in 2010, track and field's governing body adopted a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to false starts. The IAAF rule now states that if an athlete moves within 0.100 seconds after the gun has fired, he or she has false started and is immediately disqualified from the race.
Athletes hate the rule. Fans are baffled by it, particularly when the rule is enforced sporadically.
And based on what we have seen the last season and half, there is a good chance a runner you cheer for will fall victim to this rule in the next two summers when the World Championships are held in Daegu, South Korea, the Olympics are hosted by London, and Trials are held to determine teams for both.
"Someone ‘big' will get thrown out of their Trials or at the Olympics. I would bet my house on it," Universal Sports analyst and four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon said. "We will see something like an Olympic semifinal, or some high tension race, combined with some starter who wants to put almost three seconds in between ‘set' and the gun. It's not about ‘IF,' it's about ‘WHEN.'"
To wit, had this rule been implemented in 2009, when it was initially proposed, Usain Bolt would have been disqualified in the semifinals of the 100m at the World Championships in Berlin. The impact would have been historic, as Bolt would not have advanced to the final, where he ran a world-record 9.58.
But long before this rule was implemented, false starts have been a hot-button topic.
For the longest time, an athlete needed to false start twice to be disqualified from a race. It was conceivable that all nine runners in a men's 100m race could have false started and an event that should be over in 10 seconds or less, could take the equivalent of a 5000m race to complete.
Recognizing that these delays were serving as a deterrent to live television coverage, the IAAF altered the false start rule in 2003 to allow a warning to be assessed to all athletes in the field after the first false start with any subsequent false start by any athlete leading to immediate disqualification.
Under that premise, a one-and-done false start rule would seem to be even more television friendly.
That wasn't the case during Saturday's live broadcast of the Diamond League adidas Grand Prix in New York. The men's 100m was slated as the final event of the show.
First, Richard Thompson of Trinidad & Tobago jumped in lane two.
Then Keston Bledman of Trinidad & Tobago flinched in lane seven. Travis Padgett of the U.S. subsequently jumped in lane eight, and was incorrectly disqualified.
Rae Edwards of the U.S. then joined the DQ-party out with an early jump out of lane nine.
The remaining two-thirds of the original field got off cleanly on the fourth attempt, but Tyson Gay appeared to be extra cautious. His slower start put him behind the field, and although he made up ground quickly, he crossed simultaneously with his training partner Steve Mullings of Jamaica.
"It affected me somewhat," Gay said of all the false starts. "You try to block it out but it gets a little frustrating when you have to go through that. Some people bring their families out here to watch and they want to see them run. That kind of bothers me."
Because so much time elapsed during the three false starts, NBC went off the air before a winner - Mullings - was determined in the photo finish.
"In New York, the problem was not the rule," Boldon, who called the race for NBC, said. "It was a long-holding starter (which is his prerogative) and sprinters who decided to move when they felt like it. Even under the pre-2010 rule, we'd still have had two DQ's, so the rule can't be blamed for the madness."
What then could be said of the lunacy that played out at Hayward Field a week earlier at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene?
Allyson Felix clearly flinched out of the blocks in the women's 400m but was not disqualified.
Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria flinched in the women's 100m without penalty.
Someone's blocks in the men's 100m set off the electronic tone indicating early movement, and that too was ignored.
In all three instances, officials were seen huddling in conference to determine what should be done. If the rule calls for disqualifications then runners should have been tossed. When they weren't, it lent credence to the internet conspiracy theorists who assumed those officials had to be on the line with John Capriotti or some other Nike executive waiting for the "ultimate" ruling.
Gay, who prefers the previous incarnation of the rule, said "I just hope something gets done about it."
But what will it take to prompt change?
"I think it's going to take one of two things," Boldon said. "One, if Usain Bolt gets thrown out in the semifinal stage in Daegu, I think the rule would disappear next year.
"The other way, I think, is if the controversy continues. If that continues, I think you will see that rule overturned because if they are not going to enforce it, that rule does more harm than good."