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.
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?
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!
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?