Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Hubert Lawrence | Fixing the false start rule

Published:Thursday | June 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Jonielle Smith (centre) wins heat two of the women’s 100 metres ahead of Schillonie Calvert-Powell (right) and Ramone Burchell at the National Senior Championships at the National Stadium last Thursday.

Day Two of a brilliant National Senior Championships was marred by an episode of false-start madness. This time, the victim of the zero-tolerance rule was Jonielle Smith, the 2014 Carifta 100 metres champion. She, like many others since the rule was introduced internationally, received the maximum penalty for just one mistake.

Video replays showed nothing to suggest that she had jumped the gun in her 100 metres semi-final. However, sensors in the blocks revealed that she had moved before one-tenth of a second had elapsed. That's the threshold between fair starts and false starts. The margin wasn't visible to the naked eye and the fans in attendance at the National Stadium made their disapproval known.

They hoped that the first getaway would be ruled to be a 'faulty start'.

 

RUNNING UNDER PROTEST

 

As it stands now, the rule contains a provision for the disqualified sprinter to run under protest. In practice, that provision is only seen in the United States and, to my best knowledge, has never been entertained at the World Championships or the Olympic Games.

Australian Sally Pearson ran under protest in the 2010 Commonwealth Games 100 metres final, but was subsequently disqualified. The same thing happened in 2012 to Grenadian 400m ace Kirani James in Eugene, Oregon.

The handling of a false start at the recent IAAF Oslo Diamond League meet may indicate a change in approach. Dutch star Dafne Schippers jumped early in the 200m, but was allowed to run when she cited crowd noise. She was later disqualified but was eventually reinstated.

The real problem is the rule itself. To save time, the rule can levy the most drastic punishment for the smallest error. While other systems of punishment match the severity of the crime to the action taken, the current false-start rule goes red right away.

That is inappropriate on two levels. First, the one-error-maximum-punishment dichotomy feels wrong. Second, it's bad for the business of sports. A false start for a big star in the first round of the Olympics or the World Championships would kill public interest.

The rule rests on the presumption that sprinters can't react to sound faster than 0.1. Yet, that borderline was once set at 0.120 seconds. The pressure to revise came from faster reaction times by sprinters and hurdlers.

In the 1991 World Championships, Dennis Mitchell of the United States reacted to the starter's pistol in 0.09 seconds, but escaped because the starter wasn't wearing his headphones. That caused him to miss the false-start warning signal Mitchell would have triggered by moving early.

That was 1991, but what if the well-trained sprinter can now react in 0.085 seconds?

 

THE ORIGINAL RULE

 

Time-saving mavericks frown on the original rule which gives each runner one false start to burn. At the same time, the current rule has clear shortcomings. The only solution is change.

The recommendation is for an upgrade of the rule used after the 2009 World Championships and before the 2011 staging, where Usain Bolt was tossed out of the 100m final for one wrong move. That allowed one false start for the entire field and then disqualifications for anyone who transgressed afterwards. To eliminate gamesmanship, the first person to false start would also be disqualified in this new version of the rule. This would provide some leeway while cutting the wait for a maximum of eight false starts before sanctions began.

At the Stadium on Sunday, a prudent supporter proposed that start reaction times be posted on the electronic scoreboards. That would give patrons the critical information used by the officials to make tough decisions. He's perfectly right.

- Hubert Lawrence has made notes at trackside since 1980.