Thursday, March 4, 2010

Running Under Protest and the New False Start Rule

Track and Field: USA Indoor Championships

Already the new false start rule is causing controversy - and the sport is barely under way this year! During the women's 60 meters at the US Indoor Championships this past weekend we saw an athlete (Lisa Barber) DQ'd but allowed to run the race under protest. Not completely unheard of, but something that we should expect to see much more of with the new false start rule.

The idea of letting athletes run "under protest" is to avoid lengthy arguments over whether or not an athlete was "unfairly" disqualified. Situations such as Linford Christie's protest of his disqualification from the 100 meters at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and Jon Drummond's DQ from the 100 at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. Both went on for quite some time, causing major disruption of the races themselves.

As a result the rules have been set up to allow for an athlete to run under "protest". The race goes off. And after the fact the electronics (video, if available and reaction data from the starting blocks) can be reviewed to establish whether or not the DQ was accurately called. In the case of this weekend the disqualification was upheld and Barber was "disqualified" even though she had finished third in the race.

Now there are several ironies with this situation and the entire false start rule itself. The first irony is that Barber finished third in a "fair" race. By fair I mean that everyone started the race "evenly". And after all, isn't that what we really want - that the race goes off with everyone having an equal shot at victory. That what we are trying to prevent by calling false starts is to ensure that no one has an unfair advantage? And ironically that is what occurred in the final version of this race. Yet Barber was still disqualified!

Which then begs the question - why do we call false starts? Well, let's take a look at the evolution of the rule. Because in theory the rule WAS created with the intent of preventing athletes from gaining an unfair advantage - but has clearly morphed into something else.

Forever and a day, as far back as the early 1900's, the rule was very simple. Each athlete in the race was allotted 2 false starts. It was generally assumed that anyone could make a mistake, so you weren't disqualified for your first false start. If you made a second mistake, however, you were eliminated from the race.

Now, sticking with the irony theme, this system worked JUST FINE. Athletes would be upset when put out of a race, but they knew they had no one to blame but themselves. They had already false started once and KNEW they had to stay under control. And, I must add, starters seemed very in tune with making sure that the conditions were right for the start of the race. For example if there was too much noise at the start of a race they would call everyone up. Camera's started clicking they would call the athletes up. I have to say that I can't remember the last time I saw the starter reset the race without an athlete raising his/her hand first. But back to the rules.

Now the standard rule of thumb in life is "if it ain't broke don't fix it", but track and field doesn't seem to play by the standard rules of life on most occasions. So, in the 70's, some genius decided there was a better way to enforce the false start rules. You see, it was deemed to be a problem that excessive false starts in a race could cause a problem for television. You know that medium that places televising our events behind strong men pulling trucks loaded with cement or throwing barrels over walls. It was decided that we would be more attractive if we simply threw athletes out of the race if they false started so we could keep the action moving for television. At least that was the rule adopted by the NCAA - so their athletes would be ready for their single televised event each year, the National Championships! Of course the irony here is that nearly all track meets tend to be shown on tape delay here in the US. Providing plenty of opportunity to edit out the false starts! But at any rate, that is when the rules became less about the athletes and more about outside influences - and where things began to be a problem.

Now, as I said earlier, track and field doesn't seem to play by standard rules, and in the case of false starts stayed the course. So while "little brother" high school track and field decided to adopt the same rules as the NCAA - ostensibly so that high school athletes would be prepared for college sports - the IAAF adopted its own rule.

What the IAAF moved to was allowing one false start for the field before disqualifying someone. What this meant is that anyone could false start and no one would be disqualified. But the next person that false started was tossed out! In trying to understand the logic here I'm "guessing" that the thought was to cut down the potential number of false starts in half since everyone would not get two of them. One person could have two and everyone else would get just one!

But it created a rule that was inherently unfair. One athlete could false start without impunity. Anyone else was eliminated from the race! Not only was it unfair, but It made absolutely no sense. Especially when, ostensibly, the idea of calling false starts is to make the race "fair" for everyone - to prevent an athlete from gaining an unfair advantage!

And this is where I believe the sport has gone woefully off track. For starters the rules of the sport should never be altered to appease the media. The rules should be designed to ensure that the sport operates smoothly and fairly. To ensure that everyone is competing under the same standard of equity. Throwing someone out of a race is simply a punitive measure that serves no other purpose.

Eliminating Lisa Barber's performance from Sunday's race served no purpose. She gained no unfair advantage in that final. The race went off and was run as it should have been. Yes, she had an unfair advantage in the previous start, but the race was called back and reset and went off without a hitch. THAT is what calling a false start should be about - not seeing how many people we can throw out of a race!

The problem - aside from wanting to make sure the race doesn't take too long for television - is that everyone assumes that sprinters/hurdlers are always trying to cheat, to gain an unfair advantage.
The 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! Mistakes happen throughout the sport, and everyone else gets a "do over"! Throwers, jumpers, or vaulters make a mistake and they get to try again, and again - up to six times. Distance runners get tangled up early in the race and we stop the race and restart it - so that everyone has a fair and equal start. Only in the short events do we say, "make a mistake and go home".

The women's 60 on Sunday showed both what is wrong and what can be right about false starts. Barber was the defending champion and a major player in the event. We should want to see her in the race - she added to the event. Her running under protest illustrated that there was no reason why she should not have been allowed to run. That race went off exactly as it should have - error free - and the better athlete won!

The false start rule should simply be structured so that athletes do not get an unfair advantage - and that's all that is should be about. The sport had it right for about 100 years. It wasn't broke, it didn't need fixing. Now it IS broken, and we should be smart enough to say "oops" before we lose some of our major stars to the rule.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, following Bolt's DQ today I decided to look up some of the history of this. Thanks for the post which is very informative. I wish they would go back to 2 for all, the only system that ever worked. If, as you say, there was nothing wrong with it it is lunacy that no-one saw Bolt run today -- how can that possibly be good for the TV audiences either? Real stupidity.