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

The False Start Rule is a Problem

Sep 22nd, 2022
11:17 am PDT

Watching all of the championship track and field that’s occurred this year, I’ve been struck by something. I’ve noticed that the sport is getting a bit obsessed with its rules and technology! By obsessed, I mean that the sport seems more concerned with using it’s rules and technology to eliminate and punish athletes and performances, than they do to highlight and celebrate their accomplishments. As if the goal of the administration of the sport is to show the athletes who’s really in charge! Rather than facilitate their best attempts to perform.

Let me explain. We have meets, to present the athletes to the public. To provide a forum for them to compete against each other so that the public can witness these competitions. The “rules” are there to facilitate fairness within the competition. To ensure that everyone is using implements that are the same size. That everyone is running the same distance. That jumps and throws are being measured in the same way. That everyone starts races at the same time. In short, to ensure that no one has an unfair advantage. That is, and should be, the reason that any rule exists. To facilitate fairness within the competition.

The bi-product of having rules then, should be the creation of an equitable and fair competition. The conclusion of which should allow us to determine, who was fastest. Who jumped furthest. Who threw farthest. We should be able to watch a competition that at the end of the day has allowed us to see who the best athletes were in each of the events on the agenda.

Unfortunately, as I watch meets, and I watch a lot of meets, we have “adjusted” some of our rules to the point where they no longer achieve that goal. They no longer facilitate the competition, but instead hinder it. In some cases literally reducing it. Primarily through the use of technology. Don’t get me wrong. I am personally a technophile. I own a smartphone, 2 laptops, 2 iPads, an apple watch, and a running watch. I think technology is great. Fully automatic timing was perhaps the greatest technological advance in the sport in the twentieth century in my opinion. It is the epitome of fairness in the sport. Providing us with an accurate way to measure races and determine place finishes. Technology at its best! The ultimate validation of performance.

Anything can be misused however. The same tool that validates finishes, can be used to tell individuals that they will not get to finish at all! Case in point being the false start rule. The original rule was used to make sure that no one got away with starting before the gun. Way back in the day, if you were caught going before the gun, the race was restarted. If you “false started” a second time, you were kicked out. This “courtesy” was given to each participant. So conceivably there could be over eight “restarts” in a race. A bit annoying, but fair. Of course, multiple, multiple didn’t happen very often. It did happen during a televised meet in the 70’s however. An NCAA Championships, and it threw off the telecast. As a result, in a knee jerk reaction, the NCAA created a new false start rule – they allowed, none. If you false started you were kicked out. The National High School Federation followed suit and adopted the collegiate rule.

The IAAF thought this to be a bit harsh, so they (the tail wagging the dog) adopted a hybrid model. The first false start was charged to the field. Anyone false starting after that was eliminated.

Now, I will interject at this point, that neither rule was done to facilitate the competition. Instead both were done because television, something outside of the competition, had a problem with “delays”. Ironically we’re only talking about a few minutes at most! THAT should not be why rules are changed. By the way, the IAAF finally changed to the NCAA version of the rule in 2010. Now the truth is, that the rule change didn’t stop false starts from occurring. As a matter of fact, it’s WORSE now than ever! Why? Because in the early 2000’s the sport got “smart” and added pressure sensitive blocks to the equation. To “catch” would be false starters. It wasn’t enough for the starter and “recall” starter to be on the look out for the dreaded “cheaters” (that’s what we’re calling them now). We’ve brought technology into the act. The blocks will catch them, and THEY get the last word.

So, you’re already familiar with this one. No one moves. Yet someone gets kicked out, because the blocks “caught them”. The starter goes over to the screen, where a guy is reviewing the readout. Then he goes over to tell the athlete they’re done. “But I didn’t move”, the athlete says. Then he/she asks to see the data. Starter and athlete go over to look. Athlete protests. So that, now it takes more time to call a false start than it would’ve taken to simply restart the race! Your average false start now easily takes 5 minutes of time to get the race reset. A couple of false starts can push things out over 10 minutes. THAT is what it takes just following procedures! So, we’ve really taken care of TV’s problem – not.

And the reality is this. The blocks are so sensitive that in some meets there are false starts being called in races that one wouldn’t expect to see a false start. It’s really gotten ridiculous. As we’re literally calling false starts AND eliminating athletes, for “movements” that are imperceptible to the human eye! As matter of fact, TV announcers often run the tape back several times (while timers go over and over the computer readouts) in an attempt to find the movement that triggered the false start. Insane.

For starters, technology should NEVER have the last word. I understand the “want” (not a need) for a semblance of the “impartiality” that a machine adds. But sport is about people. And people need to have the final say. Why? Because humans can use rational reasoning to assess any pertinent information related to the situation. Stadium noise or other external circumstances that may have adversely affected the start. That said, my question is: why does anyone have to be eliminated? What purpose does it serve? We bring the athletes together to compete. So let them. All of them. The goal of calling false starts “should be” to ensure a fair race. Not to get rid of people. Instead, we’ve allowed the technology to literally get in the way of the competition! The tech has become the highlight! And that is just wrong. When the technology stops facilitating the competition, but instead is a hindrance. It’s time to eliminate the technology. In my opinion that’s where we are with the false start rule. It no longer exists to ensure fairness. It exists to reduce the field! That’s the wrong use of the technology.

This year’s World Championships men’s high hurdles being a perfect example. The world was anticipating the head to head matchup of two of the three fastest men in history – Grant Holloway and Devon Allen. With both men side by side in the final, Allen is called for a false start. No movement is seen, by anyone! Not even in the announcers booth on television. Not by any announcing crew. But the “system” said that Allen moved .001sec too quickly! So he was removed. The irony here is that not only was Allen harmed by this decision, but so was Holloway. Why? Because many felt that his eventual victory was “tainted” by the loss of his prime competition! The real loss however, was for the fans. As they were robbed of the best possible race! A tragedy all the way around.

The truth is, there was nothing wrong with how things were being called. No one, “got away with anything”, before the rule changes! For whatever reason, the guys wearing suits chose to make things more complicated for no particular reason. And to be honest, that’s a problem because our sport is as basic as it gets. It’s literally Citius, Altus, Fortius – faster, higher, stronger. The core of the Olympic games. Which is why, to this day, our sport is the center piece of the Olympics. We run various distances to see whose the fastest. We jump various disciplines to see who is furthest or highest. We throw various implements to see who is strongest. And we combine several of these to see who is the best all around athlete. It doesn’t get any more basic or simple than that! Until you get into the sport’s administration. They find all sorts of ways to make it extremely complicated! We say that we want to attract fans, but we try to make the sport too complex to understand. Utterly ridiculous.

And that is what the sport really needs to get a grip on. Why rules exist. Because this sport is still stuck in the dark ages in many ways. It wants to be “Professional”, but with some sense of “purity” – from the Pure amateur days. And the two cannot exist. For example. False starts. The sport is stuck on the idea that someone is trying to “cheat”! I think that went out in the dark ages. People get anxious. Nervous. Hear sounds or feel movement around them. But no one is trying to “cheat”. The sport needs to let it go and focus on the “fairness” of everyone starting at the same time. And truly, in just about every sport their is, athletes try to “get an edge”. So frankly, let them! Everyone likes to see the shortstop that “anticipates” and gets to the streaking ball before it gets to the outfield! THAT is sport. If a sprinter gets a micro second (.001sec), oh well. But no one comes to the stadium to see how good the blocks work, or how many athletes can be caught “cheating”! They go to see them ALL race!

That’s what we have to do a better job of – the presentation of our competitions. The Europeans have it right. But that’s another conversation. Today we need to understand that many of our rules hurt the sport. They hurt the athletes, and the competition.

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