The 13th world athletics championships have recently finished. As anyone who was watching August now knows the biggest talking point was the run that never happened - Usain Bolt leaving slightly early in order to collect his 100m gold medal. In the end, a few seconds later, another, slightly less charismatic Jamaican won the gold, Bolt came back to win the 200 as well as the relay and some normality was resumed.
Despite everyone, including Mr Bolt himself, claiming to have moved on and now be living happily into the ever after, there were and still are a few things which annoyed me about the false start fiasco; I'm going to complain about all of them.
Firstly it was and still is a terrible rule. It was obvious when the new rule came in that this kind of thing would happen and when it did that it would, if not ruin, then at the very least diminish the event in which it occurred. Oddly enough Bolt himself was in favour of it, while his greatest rival, Tyson Gay, wasn't. Gay suggested it would be a calamity if, I dunno for example Usain Bolt were to false start. It was almost as if the good folks at the IAAF had felt ill-at-ease after a whole season without a major drugs scandal, so went looking for something to wreck track and field's barely revived reputation.
I'm not just annoyed at the bureaucrats though. As I never enjoy sharing a wagon with a band, let alone with five million excitable tweeters, I was almost just as annoyed at other athletics fans who only started demanding a rule change immediately following the race. Really, you couldn't see this coming? Call me a soothsayer but I did. If you've been watching athletics for any longer than the last two years you will have seen a fair number of false starts - it's pretty much part of the sport. HRH Sebastian Coe argued that starting is a skill set and a part of the race. This is a fair point. I would propose, however, that false starts, the added tension when they occur and the extra excitement a second and a half after the gun when you realise that this time the race is on for real are all part of the 100m as well.
Some have said that it's now better than the bad old days when there were lots of false starts and it often took three or four attempts before a sprint was underway. I have been watching athletics for around a quarter of a century so I can remember those bad old days. The athletes would slowly wander back, I would resettle back into the sofa and we'd all try again. Sometimes it could drag on for as much as five extra minutes!
It has also been argued (badly) that false starts are cheating: the athlete is trying to get away with leaving their blocks before the gun. Wrong. Any sprinter clever enough to line-up at the right end of the track also knows that if they do leave before the gun then they will be called back. Previously this would have meant a warning, now it means the ultimate penalty: disqualification from the whole event. A quick look through the records of major championships will show that the number of contestants who have false-started and gone on to medal at a major championships comes to a grand total of zero. What people who false start are trying to do is leave very soon after the gun. By anticipating the gun they reckon they can leave a little earlier than their reactions would otherwise have allowed them. This is not cheating - athletes at the highest level need to anticipate as well as just react. This is obviously true of sports such as tennis and cricket. Add in your own sports here, it will be true of them too.
What really irritates me though is not having the above argument; it's not having it . It's the fact that this discussion has been avoided by the wrong argument being put forward. This is invariably the sage old truism that 'rules are rules'. While it is true, it's simply irrelevant. It's a cliché which has wandered into the wrong conversation. On occasions such as this when I'm reminded that rules are indeed rules I'm tempted to reply in kind: 'ahhh yes, but a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse!' The 'rules are rules' response is an answer to a question that isn't, or at least shouldn't, be asked. It's a discussion about enforcement. In this instance if the question is 'should we apply the same rules regarding starting to superstar athletes as we do to the rest of the field?' then the answer is clearly yes. You have a made a rule (albeit it a bad one) and have already applied it to other athletes. As the rule is still in place, you should now enforce it again. No argument with that non-argument. The conversation to be having, surely, is the one I began having at the start of this rant - that the current false-start rule is a bad one and needs reviewing. It's not about how or indeed whether, we choose to enforce the rule. That's a separate and, by some way, secondary discussion. If I were putting forth the opposite case (in favour of the current rule), then 'Is it a good rule?' would still be the pertinent argument.
If I can finish on a Jerry Springeresque piece of kindly advice, when you hear 'rules are rules' think about whether you are really that interested in how or whether the rules are enforced or whether the rule itself is what needs debating. A good rule needn't be afraid of this discussion. A law to immediately disqualify the first person to leave 0.01 seconds early should be.
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