My (un) biased take on the false start rule: It stinks
When a listfranc fracture in her left foot kept Canadian hurdle heroine Perdita Felicien out of the 2008 Olympic Games, she spent much of her summer in Mississauga, Ontario, staying in shape as best she could without running, and often that meant climbing on a bike and repeatedly riding up a steep hill in Huron Park.
She borrowed that bike from me, and many times I ran alongside her.
Last summer when she won her 10th Canadian championship in the 100-metre hurdles I spent the weekend chaperoning her mom, Cathy, and sister Bovella around Calgary. I lost my voice cheering for her, and prepared the tub in our hotel room for her post-race ice bath.
And in the tense moments after last month’s Olympic Trials, where she was disqualified over a false start, I grabbed my umbrella and shielded her from the rain falling in cold, heavy drops at Foothills Athletic Park, as she explained to a cluster of reporters how it felt to watch an Olympic dream evaporate.
For the past four years the 2012 Games have represented for Perdita an opportunity to claim some late-career glory after a couple of tumultuous seasons, and nobody in her circle ever imagined her not qualifying for London if healthy. We spent that Saturday evening watching television and the clock, checking email and distracting ourselves with small talk, hoping something would change but knowing it wouldn’t.
I felt like Jay Gatsby waiting to hear from Daisy wasn’t leaving Tom Buchanan, no matter what.
It was as surreal an experience as I can recall, and I recount it here so folks understand my biases up front.
Perdita is as close to me as anyone I’ve ever known, and we’ve grown closer each of the five years we’ve known each other. I’ve kneaded the knots in her calves and joined her in sets of high-intensity sprints painful enough to produce endorphins.
And I’ve held her close enough to taste her tears, in victory and in disappointment.
Perform for as long as Perdita has at the highest level of the sport and you’ll experience plenty of both. As witness and participant in the joy and the heartbreak, I feel blessed.
You can take what you’ve just read as proof that I’m too invested to judge certain situations clearly, or you can interpret the relationship between Perdita me as evidence that I have a detailed understanding of track and field.
I don’t think the personal bias taints the case I’m about to make, especially since I felt this way long before Perdita’s false start. But I laid it all out so you can judge for yourselves.
Either way, the IAAF’s false start rule — automatic DQ for any sprinter who jumps the gun — is the worst piece of legislation in sport.
It’s an abomination for sprinters, for fans, and for a sport that struggles to capture the attention of casual sports fans in the years between Olympic Games.
Yes, I hate the rule because it cost my best friend a trip to London, but I hated it just as much last year when it cost Usain Bolt a chance at a second consecutive world title in the 100 metre dash, and hated it even before that simply on principle.
The principle is that the rule expects sprinters to be something no human being on this other planet has ever been.
No other athletes in any sport are forced to conform to such an unforgiving and unreasonable standard.
This isn’t to excuse rule-breakers. Leaving the blocks before the gun is as illegal as whacking a basketball player across the forearm as he drives to the basket.
But neither is this a simple issue of discipline, or something we can explain by saying athletes should just try harder to follow to the rules. At a certain point we have to admit it’s impossible to follow a rule that doesn’t square with human nature.
Imagine basketball had a zero-tolerance rule on fouls. Can you picture LeBron James booted from game seven of the NBA Finals because he nicked an opponent’s wrist while trying to block a first-quarter layup?
Or imagine tennis with no second-serves. Get the first serve in or lose the point — and no lets, either.
Or imagine baseball with no strikes and balls. A pitcher misses the strike zone once and the batter takes a base. A batter fails to put a strike in play and he heads to the bench.
If you can envision any of those scenarios you can also picture what sprinters confront every time they step into the blocks.
But you probably can’t imagine them because as much as we hold millionaire athletes to a higher standard of performance, we also realize they’re human beings with imperfections who sometimes need to make adjustments to get things right.
Unless they’re sprinters, in which case they need to execute flawlessly the first time or go home.
It might not surprise you to learn the IAAF didn’t have athletes in mind when it changed rules around false starts.
In the past each athlete in the field was granted one false start but disqualified for a second infraction. But the IAAF began tinkering with the false start rule under pressure from TV networks, who complained that false starts caused delays that in turn complicated broadcast schedules… because networks can’t possibly adjust on the fly the way they do when a baseball game goes to extra innings.
A transitional rule introduced in 2003 saw all eight runners charged with a false start when a competitor broke from the blocks, with a disqualification for the next person to false start. That’s the rule that prompted Jon Drummond’s infamous sit-in at the 2003 World Championships in Paris.
In 2009 the rule was changed again, this time forbidding any false starts and inviting all of us to examine the massive gap between what’s equal and what’s fair.
The rule is equal in that it doesn’t discriminate against any one sprinter. In theory, anyone who jumps the gun is gone — whether it’s the guy who lucked into the final or the guy with three world records and three Olympic gold medals.
But it’s patently unfair because it holds sprinters to a different set of standards than any other competitors in a track meet.
If a long-jumper hits a huge first jump and fouls his next five attempts he can still win a medal. And if you DQ’d every jumper to put a spike on the plasticine you’d rarely need a sixth round because everyone would have been sent to the sidelines long before then.
Same with throws, where competitors can fling the hammer into the cage or step out the front of the shot put circle with the understanding they’ll have another chance after fouling.
Pole vaulters and high jumpers have three attempts at each height, and the rules are written that way for a very good reason.
The action in every event unfolds at incredibly high speeds, with outcomes determined by fractions of seconds and slivers of inches. Expecting athletes under those circumstances to hit their marks perfectly every time is about as reasonable as expecting Republicans to accept the idea every American deserves health care.
Which is to say it’s not reasonable at all. At some level track and field’s lawmakers recognize this reality, and reflect it in the rules of every event.
Just not in the sprints, where athletes who are trained to react explosively at the first sharp sound face tensions at the start line few of us can fathom, yet are expected to never flinch.
Not if fans make noise because race officials fail to take charge and keep them quiet.
Not if the starter holds them in the set position long enough to recite half the alphabet.
And not if, under the sheer stress of being a sprinter in a high-level event, cocked and ready to spring from the blocks, somebody jumps a tenth of a second before the gun.
Track and field’s rule book says only acceptable response to any of those situations is perfection, whether at a high school meet, the national championships or the Olympic final. Disqualifying high-profile performers from high-stakes competitions is proof that, from an administrative standpoint, the rule works perfectly.
But it also proves that from any other standpoint the rule doesn’t work at all.
Holding to sprinters to a standard no other competitors are forced to meet doesn’t advance the principle of fair play, and a rule designed to enhance TV feeds actually damages the broadcast product if it eliminates the athletes people tune into see.
A sprint final that runs a little long can still make riveting TV, as anyone who watched Donovan Bailey’s 100 metre victory in the 1996 Olympics can tell you.
But a sprint final missing big names is always a letdown, and you know it if you watched Yohan Blake blaze a Bolt-free field in Daegu last August.
I’m not saying this because I’m biased towards Perdita Felicien, nor am I acting like she’s the only big-name athlete to ever catch a DQ over a false start.
She’s not the first, but she’s far from the last.
And that’s a problem for anyone who loves track and field.
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