In 2011, Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt false started in the 100m final at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Bolt’s teammate, Yohan Blake, won the gold in his absence. But the story (and shame) was Bolt’s DQ. 

Yesterday in Eugene, Oregon, 110m hurdles favorite Grant Holloway (13:03) and teammate Trey Cunningham (13:08) delivered gold and silver for Team USA capping one of the grand days in World Championship history for the host nation. But the story wasn’t Grant’s redemption for Tokyo 2021, or Trey’s ascension. It was hometown hero Devon Allen’s disqualification for a reaction time infraction of one one-thousandth of a second in his final race before heading off to a new career in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Oregon grad Devon Allen learning his fate in 110m hurdles final (cbc.ca)

In a sport desperate to attract new fans and hang onto the old ones – why do you think World Athletics staged these World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in the first place? – what cries out for repair is the current false-start rule that imposes a race death-penalty on the athletes the audience actually came to see compete.

The idea is to penalize the athlete for his/her error, not penalize the entire sport!  

World Athletics has already proven they can change their rules. We have seen it in the composition of shoes, javelins, track surfaces, and poles for vaulting. Even false starts have undergone change.

In the old days, every athlete had one false start in hand. Then, to offset purposeful attempts to get flyer starts before computer technology came along to determine twitches of 1/1000th of a second, officials changed the rule again. New rule, the entire field received a warning after anyone false started. Then, the next person to jump the gun received a red card, even if it wasn’t the first offender.

But in 2010, the IAAF (now World Athletics) altered the rule again, and instituted the one-and-done, single-false-start death penalty. False starts were the bane of television broadcasts and track officials took that into consideration. Can’t start broadcasts with a lot of milling around because two or three people false started. So, officials understand there are times to modernize. Well, it’s time once again.

Ask yourself, how can 300 mph drag races go off with no false starts, while 20+ miles an hour sprint/hurdle races can? 

NHRA Christmas Tree Lights

It’s because drag racing has a simple mechanism, one built on the same computer technology as athletics. They know who jumped the gun, too. The difference is, if you false start in drag racing, everyone knows it by the red light beside your lane. They don’t recall the dragsters and make them start again, so everyone has to wait around while they reload and the offending driver tries, in vain, to make the bad thing go away. One start per race, that’s it!

Allen argues his case

I have thought in the past that maybe after one false start, you just take the offending athlete’s starting blocks away. Or, move their blocks back 1 or 2 meters so there’s not just a penalty involved in distance, but you add a chase element, which could actually make the race even more exciting. (An idea more for the 100m, since 110m hurdles involve precise steps to the first barrier.)

But by maintaining the current laboratory sterility – “I’m sorry, this is the way we’ve always done it,” – the sport continues to risk a loss of fans they can no longer afford to lose. And who, exactly, are we staging these events for in the first place?


15 thoughts on “FALSLEY STARTED

  1. Here is an idea I’ve heard proposed that makes a lot of sense.

    There was a suggestion made that marks in the typical FS range of 0.00 (and even negative) up to 0.08 are true false starts with guessing, while marks in the 0.90-0.10 call for a yellow card (for the field?) and then anything under the threshold is a FS.

    1. The only issue with the yellow card solution, is that it’s still requires a call back and restart. All the fall start changes were made to accommodate television, to speed up the action. That’s why I like the no call back, just a red card after the fact if the false start happened. Like drag racing.

  2. The Devon Allen thing was so stupid. The atmosphere in the stadium afterwards was gone. The hurdles final was an afterwards. All over .001…

    Race walkers run and no one cares. Throws are still spotted by eye. But somehow we need to measure reaction times to a thousandth of a second. Because we can.. Looking at the replay of Allen in the stadium on the big jumbotron it was obvious he hadn’t false started. But he was still out.

    1. Look how they measure the bar in the high jump, with a pole and an official’s finger. Why don’t we just use the laser technology that’s available. Even on TV they tell you how far over the board the long and triple jumpers are, or how far off the back of the board they are. Measure the jump, then add or subtract the number of centimeters they missed the board by one way or the other. It’s called the long jump, not the hit the board jump. So, you admit there are some changes that could be made. Excellent.

      1. Do they use lasers for the official LJ measurements or is that just for TV? Are the official measurements still made using measuring tape?

  3. What you don’t reAlize is that , in the hurdles, it is precision to each hurdle. Any change of distance at the start can get an athlete hurt. That would be more damaging to the sport. To allow the race to happen and then disqualify is to take the glory from the actual winner.

    1. Wayne,
      Moving starting blocks back to penalize a false start is more of 100m dash idea rather than 110m hurdles solution where, as you say, steps are more important when there are impediments blocking your way.

      But people would quickly realize that a false start identified after the fact wouldn’t take anything away for the real winner, it would just indicate why that other person got to the finish line 1st. Thanks for reading and writing.


  4. “And who, exactly, are we staging these events for in the first place?”
    Having competed in athletics for nearly 50 years many of those competitions had little to no spectator presence. I think athletic competitions are for the athletes, and fortunately interested spectators sometimes get to watch. You can have a competition without spectators, but no spectators without a competition.

    1. If they keep it up, they will drive all the fans away and only have athletes left. Fans represent the money. So, if athletes want to get paid, they better find a way to reconcile the purity of the sport with the competition for eyeballs and wallets. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Thanks for reading and responding.


  5. #1. Is there another way other than block technology to measure the false start? If there is increased pressure on the block but no part of the body shows forward movement is that really a false start? #2. If the rule is “one and done” why bother calling the race back? Everyone other than the offender had fair starts so why call them back? Just dq the offender after the fact like drag racing. If there is a disqualifying event half way through the mile they don’t make everyone start over, they just red card the offender. It would have been less disruptive if the race had been run unimpeded and Allen was dq’d. Then he could have pleaded his case while the meet continued unimpeded.

    1. Dwight: I like your idea of finding another way of measuring false starts. Maybe they could use laser technology to see when a runner broke the electronic pane of the start line.

      1. Either make the blocks less sensitive, say out to 1.20 before false start, or Forget the blocks. Adopt the NFL goal line “break the plane” definition at the start line. Wiggle around in the blocks all you want. As long as you don’t break the plane, you’re good.

  6. Well said Tony, Took the edge off a magical night of T&F and an almost certain American sweep of the medals. G


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