FROM THE EDITOR — The False Start Rule Revisited

THE TWEET was brief and to the point: “Send my apologies to everyone who had to watch that rookie mistake.” The author of that mid-May missive was elite U.S. sprinter Trayvon Bromell after his false start in the Birmingham Diamond League 100.

As typically happens when a high-profile athlete is nabbed for a falsie, there was an immediate hue and cry for going back to the good old days; back to when false starts were permitted, in what was supposed to be limited fashion.

For most of its history the sport allowed runners to have a single false start penalty-free. That changed in ’74 when the NCAA took the radical-at-the-time step of declaring a false start to be a DQ-able offense, period.

“It’s going to be a matter of educating our athletes that false starts are no longer a part of track,” said rules chair DeLoss Dodds, the Kansas State coach.

The ruling was announced after the ’74 NCAA, where 7 heats of the 100 produced no fewer than — no, really! — 18 false starts, setting the meet schedule back an hour. Dodds clarified, however, that the change had been in the works even before the Austin travesty.

High school rules made a similar change shortly thereafter, but the IAAF (and USATF) continued to allow one jump per athlete for another quarter-century.

At its ’01 meeting the IAAF’s Tech Committee by a narrow 81–74 margin adopted a compromise plan that didn’t go as far as the NCAA had.

Instead, the concept adopted allowed for a single false start incidence that would then be applied to the entire field and any subsequent infraction would DQ the runner(s) in violation, whether they had committed the initial jump or not.

To give the athletes time to prepare for this change, it wasn’t implemented until ’03. Then at the ’05 IAAF Congress the Council went on record as being in favor of going all the way to the no-false-starts protocol. An Athletes Commission poll found elite sprinters in favor of the status quo, 55%–45%.

But respected hurdler Allen Johnson tagged the crucial point in the argument when he said that although he thought jumps were a necessary evil, “the reality is that false starts cost too much in terms of time, TV time. I suspect the recommendation for a no-false-start rule was driven totally by TV considerations. But for the financial sake of the sport — if eliminating any false starts will bring more backing to the sport and more money into it — then the rule is probably needed.”

The IAAF Congress of ’09 finally agreed, voting to go the NFS route by a 97–55 margin, with 6 abstentions. Speaking out in favor of the new methodology was WR holder Usain Bolt, who said, “For me, I have no problem. I never false-started yet. It will be a problem for some people, not for me.”

Oops! Fast forward 2 years to Daegu ’11 and the most famous falsie in the sport: Bolt in the World Champs 100 final.

Asked if the rules should be rolled back to an earlier incarnation the Jamaican star said, “I keep saying it was my fault so I can’t really blame the false start rule because I knew the rule. A lot of people want it to change back to the rule where everybody gets one false start and then the whole field is warned but I’m not going to say it should be changed.”

Not that I have a vote, but if I did, I’d cast my ballot in favor of a rollback, even though high-profile DQs have been very few and far between. I’d vote not for going back to the original everyone-gets-a-freebie, but to the one-on-the-field option.

Some have suggested options that would keep transgressors in the race like by setting their blocks farther back or adding a fraction to their time. Neither is particularly pragmatic or particularly spectator-friendly. When the crowd is already yelling, “Let ’em run!” adding artifice to the proceedings isn’t the answer.

Basically, it comes down to the athletes, and I’ll give Bolt in Daegu the final word: “For me, I’ll remember this. It has taught me a lesson, just to focus and just relax and stay in the blocks.” ◻︎

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