From January 2010 onward, the official track and field false start regulation indicated that any athlete starting within 100 milliseconds of the gun being fired would be disqualified from the race. Ever since, this new iteration of the false start rule has brought nothing but disappointment to international running events, including the Olympics, collegiate events and amateur high school dual meets.
Originally, the “one-and-done” regulation was implemented as a response by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to cheaters in shorter distance races. Sprinters would often take advantage of the previous false start rules, purposely jumping the gun either to play mind games with their competition and set them on edge before the race or use the extra leniency to predict the gun and gain bonus milliseconds from their efforts. Neither of these were feasibly possible after the rule changes in 2010.
The current regulations have hit sprinters the hardest. Quick reaction to the gun can be a deciding factor for the outcome of a race. Combine that with the intense anxiety of performing in the final of a world championship 100-meter dash in front of millions of people and you’ve cooked up a recipe for complete disaster. Additionally, sprinters coming out of blocks must come up into the “set” position, where the athlete is generally leaning forward and off balance in preparation for the gun to go off. It’s not uncommon for athletes to prematurely fall forward and end up watching the race from the sidelines.
Perhaps in high school or collegiate athletics, expecting athletes to move past these issues would be harsh; however, people don’t anticipate such problems in the upper echelon of the sporting competition. Nevertheless, it still happens.
At the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Daegu, South Korea, Usain Bolt, 100-meter world record holder, jumped the gun in the 100-meter final over a year after the new regulations had been put into place. Audible disappointment from both the crowd and the commentators filled the stadium as Bolt walked off the track, head in hands, only to watch his Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake take the gold. In the 2012 IAAF Diamond League 100-meter finals, Tyson Gay, 100-meter American record holder, took the same exit that Bolt did the year prior, dropping out of the event.
“If [Bolt] had false started in New York, everyone would have been upset, and they’d have been booing, and wanting him to be let back into the race,” Gay told The Guardian in 2010. “It takes something like that to happen and I think it would be a wake-up call.”
Even with Gay’s prediction becoming a reality, the rule is still in place over 10 years later, and it seems that the rule-makers will continue to stand their ground for the near future.
Among athletes, the stance on false starting can be controversial. On one hand, having one or two fewer competitors in the race means a better chance at taking the gold, but the attitude of some athletes in track and field doesn’t necessarily reflect that mentality. For many, track is a sport about personal growth. While winning is at the very core of almost every athletic event, there’s often a deeper desire to compete with oneself in conjunction with competing among others. The feeling of getting a new personal record shows the growth and development many people crave, even if the new time, distance or height is only marginally better than the last. Fewer athletes means less competition, and less competition means less of a reason to push oneself and earn new personal records. The feeling of taking first in the 100-meter dash with a time .5 seconds over one’s personal record (PR) can be equally as rewarding as taking fourth with .1 seconds shaved off of it. If your competitors jump the gun, the race isn’t going to be the same with one or two athletes down.
As spectators of the sport, we also lose out. Some people travel thousands of miles to watch these big events in hopes of seeing an entertaining race with major athletes like Bolt and Gay, only to have their hopes dashed by one false start from their favorite competitor.
As satisfying as it is to watch Bolt or American sprinter Christian Coleman dismantle their opponents, we often watch in hopes of a competitive race. It’s not always fun watching Bolt race against eight other athletes who haven’t broken 10 seconds in the 100-meter, as we already know the outcome. However, Gay’s false start in 2012 took away what could’ve been an extremely entertaining event. Both Gay and Blake have PRs of 9.69 in the 100-meter, and it should’ve been a close race from the gun. Spectators were robbed of that pleasure, and Blake predictably swept the field in 9.76 seconds, with Jamaican sprinter Nesta Carter striding behind him in second place at 9.95 seconds.
The sacrifice the IAAF made back in 2010 hasn’t truly paid off. Cheaters are an inevitability, but a systematic solution to unsportsmanlike behavior isn’t the best solution. Instead, officials should watch for consistently dirty athletes who take advantage of the false start rules and bar them from competing if they continue their behavior. Until the current false start rule changes, track and field will never have the same punch it once did.