Monday, April 12, 2010

A Better False Start Rule

Watching the early part of this season it’s clear that the new False Start Rule (none allowed) is a major problem waiting to happen. Already we’ve seen a 60 meter final at Nationals and a 4x1 at the Texas Relays run under protest. In a meet earlier this year in Australia, their #1 400 hurdler, L.J. van Zyl, was tossed out of the hurdle final at Australian Nationals – a race he would easily have won – because of a false start infraction. Now all we need is to have a Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, or Dayron Robles thrown out of a race after being the featured draw all week!

While field event athletes get multiple opportunities to get things right, and distance races are often called back and reset so that the start is “fair” for everyone (excess jostling, tripped athletes, etc), sprinters and hurdlers dare not flinch for fear of being told that they will not even be allowed to compete! I’ve stated previously how unfair I think this new rule is, so won’t repeat it here. Simply put we have the ability to reset the race and make sure that the start is fair for all – and THAT should be the reason for implementing any false start rule.

But the sport has decided that the start of sprint and hurdle races really isn’t about “fairness” but about keeping meets running on schedule and not creating problems for television. What they don’t seem to understand is that any time you call a false start the action STOPS and the race has to be reset ANYWAY! So why punish the athletes unfairly?

However, if the sport is set on keeping things “on track”, and is so worried about how many times we may have to restart a race, then let’s do like we do in the distances and simply let them run. That’s what I said, fire the gun and let the race go. And then, just like in the distance events, if a “foul” (in this case a false start) occurred disqualify the culprit(s). After all we do have the technology.

Here’s the deal. We’re calling false starts primarily off the readings of the sensors on the starting blocks. They read that someone came off the blocks too quickly and they are dinged for a false start. The race is called back. The athletes are reset. And the race is restarted. Since we have the reaction data regardless of whether the race is stopped or not, why stop it? Let the race go and then sort out the disqualifications as the results are presented. If there are reaction times that are below the allowable then those athletes are disqualified. Everyone is allowed to run. The fans get to see everyone compete. They get an exciting race. And those in charge of the meet get races that are run only once with little delay. I say little delay because the starter will still maintain the right to restart a race. After all, using the electronics does not eliminate all the distractions at the start. So the starter can still call the athletes up should he see excess movement, hear too much crowd noise, see someone moving in the blocks, etc. But the starter will not be able to eliminate anyone from the race – false starts can only be based on reaction time.

This gives everyone what they want. A clean race. Meets running on time without undue delays. And all athletes that show up to a meet are guaranteed to compete. And compete without undo stress. Races like the 1996 Atlanta Olympic 100 final will no longer occur. Instead of Linford Christie protesting his false start ad nausea and holding up the race, the race will have already been run! Any protesting by Christie or any other athlete dissatisfied with the results will be done via normal appeal channels - same as we do if someone steps over the line on the turn.

Which means that rather than running a race under protest, if there is a question about a disqualification it can be appealed and a protest levied just like in any other event. The one caveat to this rule is that in the event that an RT reading is unavailable due to equipment malfunction then the results of the race cannot be considered valid – as there always exists the potential that someone “left” early. But that is no different than any other equipment malfunction issue – with the wind gauge, timing equipment, etc.

Personally I prefer giving the athletes a second chance, but if we are going to have a false start rule that says we have “zero tolerance” then I believe this is the best way to enforce the rule. I would rather see athletes run and have to be disqualified than not have the opportunity to see them compete at all. And I think most fans of the sport would feel the same way. After all that’s what we do with all of the other events – you’re disqualified AFTER you’ve performed!


  1. As a high school coach I always thought that the "no false start" rule they had to comply with, especially in light of the IAAF/USATF rule allowing one FS charged to the field, was especially unfair to kids just learning the sport.

    When IAAF changed their FS rule,I thought that at least now, HS, NCAA and IAAF were now all on the same page. I still think the rule stinks but now the pros and HS freshmen both live and die by the same rule.

    But after reading your Blog I admit that I have changed my mind. No sprinter should have to endure this stupid rule for the sake of "meet management."

    The one FS charged to the field should be procedure for everyone from HS to the pros. Let them all run!

  2. I just feel that the rules of the sport should be designed to manage the events for the benefit of competitive fairness/equality .. Eliminating athletes without allowing them to compete is just wrong in my opinion .. Especially when you consider all of the potential reasons that a false start might occur ..

    Like you I would prefer to see the athletes given a second chance .. Bit as I said if that isn't going to happen, at least let them compete before disqualifying them ..

    And as far as meet management goes, I don't see any other sports worried about how long their events run - let alone resorting to eliminating participants in order to move things along !! Give people a good show and they won't care ..