The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

IAAF, Please Revise the False Start Rule

Sep 14th, 2012
9:11 am PDT

Me for Blog picI know the sun has barely set on the 2012 season, but if you’re going to fix something it’s never too early to get started. While I think that several things could use an overhaul in this sport, the most glaring is the false start rule!

Fortunately, the Games did not suffer from the disgrace that was Usain Bolt being tossed out of the World Championships final in Daegu. But we did see several high profile athletes wave good bye in other meets on the Circuit. Athletes like Tyson Gay, Kelly Ann Baptiste and Aries Merritt were among many that were casualties of this rule in 2012.

If someone has a rationale that explains the benefit of having these athletes leave the track without competing please tell me, because I would love to hear it. From my perspective, Zurich lost a Gay v Blake matchup – a race I’m sure many in the stands paid specifically to see. Similarly, fans in New York and Lausanne missed their chance to see Aries Merritt perform during his all conquering, record breaking season. Almost certainly missing a live sub13 performance!

In a sport that desperately needs to have it’s best athletes perform on the track as often as possible, getting rid of competitors is as counter intuitive to the growth of the sport as one can get! We should be doing everything we can to get top level athletes competing against each other, not watching races from the sidelines.

I understand that every sport need rules. But those rules should be designed to attempt to reduce the chance of injury, or to ensure as level a playing field as possible. The false start rule that exists today does neither of those things. I mean, just why do we call false starts at all.

In its simplest form, calling a false start makes sure that everyone starts as evenly as possible. Which means that if someone does break early and the race is stopped, the reason the rule exists has been accomplished – we’ve prevented that athlete from getting an unfair advantage in the race. Now the question is: what should the punishment be? For my money, eliminating an athlete at this point is ridiculous. Why, because we had to reset the race? Ostensibly that’s the logic of the current rule – if you cause us to reset the race (and lose TV time) then you can’t run. Who cares if you are the center piece of the race; a headliner; or a key cog in a matchup that thousands came to see? You see the point of the race isn’t the competitors but ensuring that things run on time! At least from the standpoint of the current false start rule.

Granted we can’t afford/allow any race to be reset over and over and over again as athletes break early at their pleasure. That would not be good for the sport either. If for no other reason than it would actually encourage false starting. After all, an athlete could simply keep attempting to “guess” the gun if there is no penalty. So we do need to place a limit on false starts to preserve the integrity of the sport. The question is what is a fair and equitable rule.

Personally I didn’t like the previous rule either – the first false start charged to the field and any subsequent false starts causing elimination. In that scenario the first person to break early had the advantage of a second false start as well as the ability to "freeze" the field if he or she desired. Too much potential power, especially in a championship situation.

The rule before that was in force for most of the life of track and field – each person got two false starts and you were eliminated on the second one. This worked just fine for nearly a hundred years. Only on rare occasions would we see several athletes false starting in a race. Unfortunately one such race occurred at an NCAA Championships in the 70’s causing a TV delay, and rules makers to have a knee jerk reaction to "fix" the problem.

I say knee jerk reaction, because I’m not sure you needed to fix something that worked just fine over 90% of the time. But IF we were going to make adjustments to the rule at that point, how about treating the "field" like an individual and giving the first two false starts to the field with automatic elimination after that? Given this scenario, more than one person can make a mistake, but everyone has to get it together fairly quickly. A happy medium perhaps?

I have one other complaint, and that’s that the athletes are being held to a non human standard. What do I mean? I mean that if the human eye can’t detect a false start then a false start shouldn’t be called. The fact that a machine can detect the slightest touch of the foot pad does not mean that an advantage has been gained. As a matter of fact, one might argue that “twitching” causes a slower start as the athlete is thinking about not moving further instead of exploding off the blocks. I would also argue that since block clearance and early drive are the real components of the start and not reaction time, early movement in the blocks prior to clearance means almost nothing. Therefore our focus should be on athletes actually leaving the blocks early and that can be determined visually.

Put the starter back in charge of the race. Humans should run things, not computers. The starter should be able to determine whether or not an athlete got an unfair advantage by sight. And the computer equipment should be there in the event that the starter feels he needs verification of what he thinks his eyes saw – or feels his eyes may have missed.

That’s my input on the false start rule. Move to two false starts to the field and then immediate elimination, and allow the starters the discretion of actually calling false starts. Of course I’d love to see the sport adopt my line of thinking, but if not it still needs to make some sort of change to this rule. Because as it stands right now this is a horrible rule that is hurting the sport.

10 Responses to “IAAF, Please Revise the False Start Rule”

  1. Coach Larry says:

    I can’t imagine any current or former sprinter who wouldn’t agree that the current false start rule needs to be changed. But athletes have very little say in their own sport.

    They held way too long in the blocks, thus inviting a twitch detectable by a machine. They and the fans are often denied the head-to-head competition that could be had, which would probably add not much more than 60 seconds to the length of the meet if they were given a second chance. If TV time is an issue, those absolutely worthless post-race interviews could (and should) go.

    The biggest impediment to changing the rules is that the old men who make them, the ones who run the IAAF, have no idea what the sport of Athletics is all about.

    • CHill says:

      I agree, I’m not sure that the rule makers have a clue .. Every false start is not about trying to cheat …

      The great irony to me is that the sport would institute a rule for TV, yet we are considered, and treated like, a niche sport at best .. Might be different if we were constantly getting TV coverage during the peak of the season .. But you don’t let someone run your sport that acts like they don’t care if you exist or not ..

  2. Skydance7 says:

    This is the most compelling argument I have read anywhere which intelligently indicts the current (and preceding) false start rule. It should be shouted from every rooftop.

    And as for any airtime delay the “old” rule might cause, let the media break away temporarily to a triple jump or a hammer throw. Who knows, they might accidentally stumble upon a world record…

    • CHill says:

      Thank you …

      And I agree that TV should learn how to maximize the time it has .. They could show a lot in an hour/hit and a half of they’d just move around ..

  3. Malik says:

    Hey, do you have any link to that NCAA race that you mentioned with all the false starts?

    • CHill says:

      I don’t … Not even sure there would be one it was so long ago .. There weren’t even VCRs at that time so no way for anyone other than a network to archive it .. I think CBS was doing the NCAA meet in those days . .. I’ll have to try and do some research …

  4. Anderson says:

    When a big name false starts, its an issue. If a few of the athletes from the small countries in the 1st round of the 100m at the Olympics false started, no one would be complaining…

    I think the rule is fine. If false starting was a real problem, you would see everyone false starting very often (im talking 3-4 every race) When you have 1 or 2 athletes every 4-5 big meets, then there is no issue. Its pretty simple, wait for the gun, then go. The rules of races have always been don’t leave before the gun. That’s pretty simple no matter what the level of competition.

    • CHill says:

      Sorry, but I took issue with the rule change before it even went into effect ..

      The rule, any rule, should not be based on perceived “problem” – that’s how it got messed up in the first place … Nor should it be based on frequency of infraction ..

      As you stated, the issue is how to handle situations where athletes leave before the gun – regardless of how often that happens .. And this rule inordinately punishes anyone that does so ..

      Unfortunately how rules get implemented and/or changed is too often based on the popularity of those that get hurt/injured .. In this case, the unfairness of the rule for all didn’t become highlighted until the unfairness for a popular athlete became the focus ..

  5. Waynebo says:

    **applause** Bravo!! Well said as usual.
    Now if we could just get some people from the IAAF (and USATF) to start reading your blog. I would like to hear the IAAF defend their position instead of just refusing to change the rule.

    Does USATF have an official position on this?

    • CHill says:

      Send the link to IAAF/USATF and have your friends do the same …

      I too would love to hear the rationale for the rule .. I’ve never heard am official position from USATF .. Though they have been in favor of letting athletes run under protest ..

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