USA Track & Field: One false step would cost sprinters
No more warnings: A “nerve-wracking” new IAAF rule disqualifies athletes who false start
By Ron Bellamy
Thursday, Jun 23, 2011
For some sprinters, the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, which run today through Sunday at Hayward Field, could be over before they start — that is, if the sprinters start too soon.
Last year, the IAAF, the world’s governing body for the sport, implemented a new no-false-start rule, in which any athlete who commits a false start is immediately disqualified.
In the parlance of the profession, that’s “one-and-out.”
“Definitely, it makes it a little bit on edge for the major competitions, that for the Olympics or World Championships you could possibly get thrown out if something goes wrong,” said Allyson Felix, the defending world champion at 200 meters who will run the 400 here this week.
“It’s something that you try not to focus on. It’s the rule and you just have to try your best to go with it. I don’t think it’s changing any time soon.”
Since 2003, the rule had been that the first false start would be charged to the field, with the next runner to commit a false start being disqualified. That, in turn, had replaced the rule in which each runner could get one false start before being disqualified — greatly lengthening the time it took to run sprint events and messing up television coverage.
(In the decathlon and heptathlon, a first false start receives a warning.)
Sanya Richards-Ross, the defending 400-meter world champion who will focus on the 200 this week, said she preferred the previous rule, in which the initial false start was charged to the field.
“I think that rule worked fine, and I think that has been proved over the last couple of meets, where we’ve had four or five false starts, and three or four people get thrown out of the meet, or some instances where someone may have false-started and they’re not sure,” Richards-Ross said Wednesday.
“I think the old rule worked just fine, in my opinion.”
Most likely, if there are false starts in the USA championships, they will come today and Friday, in the prelims and finals of the 100 meters, or in the high hurdles races later in the meet. Felix and Richards-Ross agreed that they are less likely in the 200 and 400, where runners begin from staggered starts.
“In the 100, it’s so intense and everyone is next to each other,” said Felix, the national champion at 100 meters last year. “If you think you can see anything, or any kind of movement, you definitely want to go with that. It’s definitely a little nerve-wracking.”
Although the rule was in effect last year, the topic is still relevant this year, with the World Championships at stake and the Olympics looming next year. Television analyst Ato Boldon, a former elite sprinter, has warned that the rule could have major repercussions — if, for example, a sprinter the caliber of world record-holder Usain Bolt is disqualified in the Olympic Games.
On top of that, observers of the sport believe that starters seem to have been enforcing the rule inconsistently.
At the adidas Grand Prix in New York, for example, four runners were disqualified in three false starts in the men’s 100 meters.
But at the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field a week earlier, flinches in the blocks by Felix in the women’s 400 and Blessing Okagbare in the women’s 100 were not ruled false starts.
Felix said Wednesday that she thought she would be charged with a false start in the Pre Classic.
“When I went up (in the set position), I felt like I was being held a really long time, and I think just naturally I flinched a little bit,” she said. “I thought it was a false start and that’s why I stopped running.”
But no false start was charged, the race was recalled and re-started, and Felix finished third.
Major meets, including the Pre Classic, use starting blocks that can detect false starts, ruled to occur when an athlete’s reaction time to the gun is proved to be faster than 100/1,000th of a second, causing an electronic tone to sound in the starter’s headset, though the system is not without flaws.
That possible false starts in the Pre Classic didn’t lead to disqualifications led to speculation about preferential treatment for star athletes.
Prefontaine Classic meet director Tom Jordan said those decisions were made by the start referee, former Eugene resident Eric Zemper, and by highly regarded starter Perry Jenkins.
“I love it from a fan standpoint,” Jordan said of the one-and-out rule. “It scares me from a promoter’s standpoint. No one wants to see a headliner out. At the same time, it really has cut down on the number of false starts.”
The policy for this week’s USA championships is quite simple, according to former Washington State coach John Chaplin, chair of the USATF men’s track and field committee. In a statement provided by USA Track & Field, Chaplin said: “We will follow the rule as printed in the rule book.”