Quick Off The Mark

There might not be another sport in the world so reliant upon one competitor as athletics is on Usain Bolt. Since his breakthrough year of 2008 he is who the crowds pay money to watch, he is who Puma give ridiculous amounts of money to just to wear their clothes and endorse their products. So why would the sport’s governing body risk not having their poster boy lining up in their most watched event and converting more of the fence-sitters to the ways of track and field?

Starting Blocks

False starts have been making the headlines at the World Athletics Championships 2011 in Daegu. Photo: tableatny

The honest answer is more than likely to keep television broadcasters happy. The old rule of each athlete in a race being allowed one false start and only being disqualified after a second sometimes ended up in a ten second race taking over ten minutes to complete and throwing television schedules into chaos. That rule was revised to one false start by an athlete and the whole field being warned, the next to go early was gone for good.

That system was open to manipulation though as competitors could deliberately false start themselves to put a nervous rival under pressure and increase the chances of them jumping the gun and being ejected. So the decision was taken as of 1st January 2010 that anyone who false started would be removed from the race, no warnings, no yellow cards, no second chances, if you go early, you go home.

Bolt himself was actually an advocate of the rule change, speaking in 2009 he said: “For me, I have no problem, I never false-started yet. It will be better for the sport.

It will be a problem for some people but not for me“, he added.

The Jamaican will have no doubt had these words played back to him in the hours since his most costly of strides and be left to ponder what could have been.

The rule itself has come under intense scrutiny in the past day or so but we can’t ignore the fact that this is not a new rule for these championships, it was put in place at the beginning of 2010 so that athletes would be used to it by Daegu 2011. Many people have commented that were it someone from the outside lanes to be disqualified in the final then that’s just the way it goes, you know the rules and if you’re not good enough to cope with them then you face the consequences. Only because it’s the fastest man ever to grace this Earth that the rule should come into question is not fair on the governing body or Bolt’s fellow competitors.

Yes everyone would have preferred to see Bolt streak away from the field in his customary fashion and redefine the boundaries of what we regard to be humanly possible, but Usain races under the same rules as everyone else. I don’t feel cheated out of a spectacle because a particularly talented athlete broke the rules, though that’s not to say I feel the rule is particularly fair either. Football clubs have been known to refund the price of a ticket or pay for travel to another fixture after a particularly bad result, a fine show of loyalty to fans but not one that is necessary.

Sports fans pay their money aware of all the outcomes and should not demand recompense if the outcome isn’t their preferred one. Of course I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see Bolt in full flow but sporting competition is unpredictable and that’s why I love it. In fact it has made me more excited for the 200m event to see just what an extra-motivated Bolt is capable of.

Now with regards to the fairness of the rule I can see both sides of the argument, the IAAF doesn’t want a race to last ten minutes but one strike and you’re out seems rather draconian. Unfortunately I don’t see a compromise with the current starting procedure as it is, they tried the next best thing and it led to gamesmanship so there doesn’t appear to be a middle-ground.

I have a suggestion that some will argue removes a crucial element from the competition but I think it solves the problem of false starts completely and I can’t think why it hasn’t yet been implemented (if someone else knows then please correct me):

Instead of holding the athletes in a ‘set’ position for a variable length of time, why not just have a countdown to the gun? All you would need is a set of bleeps counting down from three, or five, or whatever you want after the starter has ordered the athletes to ‘set’. The aim of a race is to determine the fastest person over a given distance, not how fast they can react to a gun.

The false start would then be anyone who went before the countdown reached 0.00 and you wouldn’t have to worry about reaction times. Some athletes may be particularly good at anticipating the final bleep but the playing field would be level and it would be no different to someone reacting well to the gun as the system works today.

Usain Bolt Posing

Should Bolt concentrate more on his running and less on the showboating? Photo: Brunel University

The only thing that may need to be looked at is the threshold for what sets off a false start. Dwain Chambers was guilty of a false start in the semi-finals of the World Championships on Sunday but his hands never left the floor, his feet didn’t leave the blocks and he hadn’t really ‘started’, it was more of a twitch that he managed to control. His blocks clearly registered enough pressure being applied to count as a false start though.

There has been plenty of debate in the aftermath of the final as to whether Bolt’s training partner and eventual winner of the race, Yohan Blake, twitched in his blocks and that is what triggered Usain to go. The footage clearly shows that Blake did move in his blocks, not as much as Chambers though, so the threshold is clearly somewhere between the two. Was Blake’s movement enough to set Bolt going? This is something we will probably never find out as Bolt is unlikely to blame his training partner and good friend for his lapse in concentration (at least not until he’s got a book to sell anyway).

More research may need to be done into how much movement is needed to activate the sensors and whether that is sufficient to trigger a movement from a fellow competitor. In all likelihood it will never be possible to find a happy medium though and the rules will remain as they are, if you apply enough pressure to the blocks to warrant a false start then you have false started, no matter what those around you may have done.

Finally, it warrants comment that Bolt himself has conducted himself in a fine manner amidst all the hullaballoo. He hasn’t mentioned Blake potentially moving in his blocks, in fact the first thing he did was to congratulate him on becoming the youngest ever 100m World Champion. The World Record holder has simply stated his desire to move on from the 100m and focus on the 200m, after all he can still leave these championships with another two gold medals to add to his collection with the 4x100m still to come as well.

One thing’s for sure though, the viewing figures for the 200m will have been given a boost.

Photos: Starting blocks – tableatny, Usain Bolt – Brunel University

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