Sat | Mar 24, 2018

Hubert Lawrence | Change the right rule

Published:Thursday | January 11, 2018 | 12:00 AMHubert Lawrence
Athletes at the start of a 100 metres heat at the annual Boys and Girls' Athletics Championships.

The benefits of the revised 4x100 metres baton-passing rules sound good. No one likes to see disqualification stemming from passes made outside the exchange zone. For most of us, it's heartbreaking to watch months of training and dedication go up in smoke.

It's particularly bad when the young ones are involved.

In the Jamaican case, that doesn't happen too often. Our coaches are great, and the local track and field calendar has so many relay events that teams test their skill under pressure week after week. The outturn is that Jamaica is a baton bully. Put aside the mistake by our ladies' dream team in the heats of the 2008 Olympics and you will find an otherwise brilliant record of performance. Until Usain Bolt pulled up with injury at the IAAF World Championships last year in London, Jamaica had crossed the line first in every major global 4x100m from 2008 onward.

World records of 37.10, 37.04 and 36.84 seconds show Jamaica's mastery of the old rules.

When Tayna Lawrence, Sherone Simpson, Aleen Bailey and Veronica Campbell took the Olympic gold in 2004, they started something special. In the years that followed, Jamaica won the World Championships three times, in 2009, 2013 and 2015, with podium places at the 2012 and 2016 and the 2011 and 2017 World Championships.

Even if the new rules make baton-passing easier, this nation of sprint-relay experts could hardly do better.

When news of the new rules broke, I was speed-scanning my video cassette recording of the 2017 Gibson-McCook Relays. Guess what? Among the big teams at senior, high-school and prep/primary level, there weren't too many instances of baton-passing disqualifications either.

Still, the spirit of change is welcome. Hopefully, it will extend to the zero-tolerance false start rule. Mathematically, it causes far more anguish than the old relay rule. After all, individual sprints outnumber 4x100m events in most meets. That translates into more opportunities for pain and agony.




It wouldn't be a surprise if there are fans in Daegu who are still emotionally scarred by Bolt's stunning false start in the 2011 World Championships there. Fortunately for Jamaica, Yohan Blake seized the moment and won the restart of that 100-metre final, but for Bolt and the fans who paid to see him race, that was tragic.

False starts can be prompted by someone moving prematurely in an adjacent lane or by insects buzzing around at an inopportune moment. At the 1983 World Championships, an electronic watch beeped with the competitors in one heat in the set position. Under today's rule, something like that could disqualify World 100 champion Tori Bowie or Olympic champion Elaine Thompson from a major final.

In such a scenario, the athlete and the fans suffer equally. Puerto Rican hero Javier Culson bawled like a baby when he lost a chance at a medal because of a false start in the 2016 Olympic 400-metre hurdles final. His nation, and his admirers around the world, cried with him.

This new spirit of change is welcome because the sport can't stay still. There's too much competition for the attention of the general sports fan and the advertiser. In this context, the zero-tolerance false start rule is a dangerous wager. If we leave it as it is, we invite a replay of Daegu. The sport lost that bet, but it doesn't have to walk that path again.

- Hubert Lawrence has made notes at track side since 1980.