Devon Allen’s False Start DQ Raises A Furor

A mere 0.001 was enough for Devon Allen to find himself served up with a dreaded red card. (GIANCARLO COLOMBO/PHOTO RUN)

A MARKETING DISASTER for the sport? That’s what many called the Devon Allen false start debacle, and it’s hard to find the lie. The Philadelphia Eagles signee — and 110H world leader — brought many crossover eyes to the WC broadcast, gridiron fans checking in to see if this Oregon alum was all he was cracked up to be.

What they saw was the sport failing to deliver on what was potentially one of the greatest matchups of the meet, the Nos. 2 and 3 hurdlers clashing for global bragging rights.

At the start, the blocks detected Allen reacting in 0.099, a thousandth faster than the 0.10 (100ms) that is allowed. The officials, not empowered by the rules to overrule the sensor, fired the recall gun and broke out the red card, despite what their eyes saw, or didn’t see.

A close-up, slow-motion replay showed no early movement by Allen, who didn’t get out as fast as Grant Holloway in the adjoining lane. But naked eyes aren’t the best of tools for detecting crucial foot motion, which is why pressure-sensitive blocks were introduced in the first place.

“It’s nobody’s fault but my own,” Allen told NBC. “I just got to make sure I just go 1/1000 slower.” He noted that a number of variables contributed to the situation. “There was noise from the crowd, there were people going into set later than others, so there’s till movement going on. The fact that they’re going to not allow me to run under protest, for all that stuff, it kinda sucks.”

Indeed, the rules only give the officials the latitude to allow an athlete to run under protest if they felt the equipment had malfunctioned. They did not, despite the fact that the Seiko detection system had been giving some clearly faster readings than it had in Doha three years earlier.

The reaction numbers are indeed different in Eugene, as compared with previous big meets. For instance, combining all the reaction times in the men’s 100 and 110H and comparing the numbers from Doha and Eugene, the average reaction time in Eugene is faster (0.1331 vs. 0.1555) and more runners have dipped under 0.115 (25 vs. 3). Has the sensitivity of the blocks been tweaked to pick up lesser movements?

One researcher points out that since ’97, only three athletes have reacted faster than 0.110 in a 100 or 110H semi or final at a major championship. Yet in Eugene that number has already doubled: it includes hurdlers Allen (twice), Trey Cunningham, Shane Brathwaite; and sprinters Christian Coleman and Akani Simbine (with Trayvon Bromell at exactly 0.110). This doesn’t include false starts called on Tynia Gaither and Julien Alfred in the women’s 100 semis earlier in the evening.

Much of the discussion has focused on the validity of the longstanding 0.10 reaction-time limit. Some have cited a 2009 IAAF study which suggested that the limit be placed at 0.080 or 0.085 but critics note the small survey size (7 Finnish athletes).

But one of that study’s other recommendations may be worth considering: that the sport urgently explore “possibilities for detecting false starts kinematically, so that judges’ decisions are based on the first visible movement regardless of the body part. This can be done with a system of high-speed cameras, which gives views of all the athletes on the start line.”

One suspects that now that the existing false-start protocol has given WA and its efforts to market the sport better in the U.S. a swift kick in the shin, perhaps Seb Coe will move the topic off the back burner.

Despite his understandable frustration, Allen says he’s not done with track: “My goal is to be the best hurdler ever, and I still have a chance to do that.”