Sunday, May 17, 2009

Carson - The Poster Child for Changing the False Start Rule, Back

I settled down to watch the Adidas Classic yesterday. Always a great meet, this year it seemed that almost every event under 400 meters involved some issues with false starts. More irritating than the false starts themselves was the attitude of the announcers, as the First words out of the announcers mouth, repeatedly, was that we should go to a no false start rule. Which is indicative of why track and field keeps treading water in its attempt to become a major sport - we always look in the wrong direction to solve our problems in my opinion!

What's wrong with the false start rules? Well for my money there are three primary problems. For starters the rules are different in high school and college than they are on the open/elite level. Par for the course in track and field where the rules are not uniform between the various levels of competition. Second, they are purely punitive in nature. Violate and you don't get to compete - period, end of discussion. A recurring theme in track and field where it seems the only way to make people happy is for the athlete to be eliminated from competing. Finally, and in conjunction with my second problem, the rule has no relationship to the intended goal - ensuring that no one in the race gets an unfair advantage at the start!

And it is with the intended (or implied) goal of the rule that I will start, because that IS where one should start when trying to establish rules - i.e. just what is it that we are trying to accomplish. In the case of identifying false starts, that's an easy one - we simply don't want competitors gaining an unfair advantage, or even more simply, a head start! And whether there is a recall starter doing so by sight, or modern technology doing so by release of pressure on the starting block pads, we have the means to accomplish this. Someone gets a "flier" and we can call them back, reset the race, and start over again.

But as simple as that is it's at this point that things get all mucked up. For starters (pun intended) its always assumed that a false start happens because the athlete is trying to cheat! Those people that make that assumption have obviously never sprinted or hurdled. By making that assumption, the first response is to punish the athlete - as in "we'll show them for trying to cheat". Reality is that there are many reasons why a sprinter or hurdler false starts:

• Mondo gets hot! Depending on how long your hands are on the ground you just might move them in spite of yourself.

• Starters hold too long. The ideal is for the starter to get everyone in the blocks and settled, get them up into the "set" position and fire the gun on a 2 second count. I've been at meets where starters hold the athletes for several seconds - which is an eternity when you are in the blocks. Very easy for arms to give way or your balance to falter.

• Starters are often inconsistent. A lot of starters want to show that THEY are in control of the meet. Part of this control is the attitude that "no one is going to catch a flier" on them. So they are inconsistent in their count - in an attempt to throw the athletes off. Holding for less than 2 seconds - giving some athletes a very quick start. Then holding for much longer than 2 seconds and causing these athletes to be off balance.

• Crowd noise. When you are sitting in the blocks and waiting for the sound of that gun, you are so focused that you may go on the first sound that you hear. That sound can be the click of a camera, something falling to the ground, or even a cough.

• Off balance in the blocks. Perched in the set position with all of your weight against your hands, it can easy to simply twitch or flinch from being off balance.

• Movement along the starting line. I don't know how many times I've seen one athlete flinch and one or two others start to run - not wanting to get left behind!

These are just a few of the legitimate reasons why athletes commit false starts - and none of them have a thing to do with trying to cheat! Now a really good starter does control the race and takes notice of these things and has the where with all to reset the race. But there are few Tom Moore's out there - long time meet promoter and starter at the Modesto Relays. Tom realized that the athletes were #1, and that the fans came to see them compete! So he was very sensitive to making sure that no one got an unfair advantage, but also that the fans got to see everyone compete.

In the absence of ALL of our starters being cloned in the mold of Tom Moore, as long as they are part of the equation you simply can't just automatically punish the athletes when many occurrences of false starts are the result of poor "officiating"!

The other reason that the false start rule has gotten all screwed up is directly related. As I said, Tom Moore understood who the most important people at a track meet were - the athletes, followed closely by the fans. Unfortunately, that opinion is not shared by many of his contemporaries. Now the most important people at a track meet - as indicated by the decisions made by the leaders of this sport - are the TV people! We've become so preoccupied with pleasing the TV people - who only broadcast a handful of our meets a year - that we've short changed our athletes!

For example the reason that we have the false start rule that we have today is because we were concerned about meets "running over" for TV! Now, I'm sorry, when the majority of our meets are being televised and we are making NBA, NFL, MLB kind of money from television rights, then perhaps we should make some concessions to TV regarding how the sport is run. However, while we are holding our breath for that to happen our rules should be created for the benefit of our athletes! And we should stop selling our soul to someone who won't even give us fair market value for it!

This is why we have a false start rule that makes no sense at all and has no sense of fairness to it! I mean, I can false start, still run the race and be just fine. In the same race you can false start and have to pack your bags and go home! Ask a kindergarten child if that sounds fair to them! See, we've decided that whoever false starts the first time, gets immunity from prosecution. Instead, everyone shares in the blame - even though no one else did anything wrong! Now the next person that commits the infraction is dead meat! Confusing? Well, this is what happens when you take a perfectly good rule and try to make it fit someone else's needs!

You see, the original rule gave everyone in the race a false start to use, and disqualified anyone committing a second false start. This worked just fine for 100 years! Sure there were races where there were 3, 4 even 5 false starts. But no one gained an advantage over anyone else; the athletes got to compete; and the fans got to see great competition. As an athlete you were granted one mistake in an event where the slightest flinch can end up being a mistake. Compare this to field events where you get multiple attempts to "get it right" and distances over 400 meters where in many cases the goal is to let someone else get out and lead!

Now the common refrain I hear when it comes to a "no false start" rule is that the high schools and colleges have gone to it and it works just fine. Well, they've gone to it, and they are using it, but just because you are doing something doesn't mean it’s the best you can do - or that it is working just fine. In the case of the no false start rule, yes its being used, but annually there are severe casualties. Top level athletes that don't get to compete because of it - deprived of their shot at glory due to a glitch, a flinch, or the mistake of a starter. Here in California, the road to the State High School Championships is littered every year with individuals and relay teams that "should have been" at the State Meet. Eliminated at conference or sectionals or Masters meets, not by the competition, but by a split second of chance. Even at the State Meet itself there are those that are taken out due to no fault of their own. And not just here in California, because I read about athletes all over the country in high school and college meets that are done in by this rule!

I remember being at the California State Meet the year Steve Lewis (eventually a two time Olympic medalist) was called for a false start in the 400 meters. He was a full second better than anyone else in the field and was clearly NOT looking to cheat. A fan in the stands taking a photo cause him to come out early. The boos and hisses in the stands became deafening until finally the Clerk of the Course did the right thing - he let Lewis back in the race. Lewis did what he had been doing all year - he demolished the field. But then he was the best that the state had to offer and THAT is what the people came to see! We even had a similar incident at US Nationals a few years back, where after reviewing video footage an athlete was reinstated after being disqualified for a false start - and went on to win the event and later become World Champion.

You see, every once in a while we get it right. We do the right thing, for the right reasons. Not nearly often enough mind you, but every once in a while. After watching yesterday's debacle of poor starting exhibition its clearly time to revise the false start rule. Not to the no false start rule constantly advocated by Larry Rawson and other commentators, but back to the TWO false start rule employed by the sport for most of its tenure. Sprinters and hurdlers are no different than any other athletes on the track and shouldn't be treated as such. They compete in the most pressure packed events on the track yet they are the ones expected to make NO mistakes.

If we are so worried about TV time, then perhaps the better solution would be for TV to simply plan on giving us another 30 minutes for each meet. More relaxed for everyone concerned and enough time to get a few more events onto the screen. That way EVERYONE wins. But lets stop looking for ways to punish our athletes, because it seems that that is what this sport does best. After all, the rule is supposed to give everyone a fair and equal start - not eliminate them from competing.

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