SHOCKWAVES reverberated across the world of track and field when Usain Bolt was disqualified in the 100M final at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
The world’s fastest man was penalised for bolting too soon off the starting blocks. If he were utterly distraught by his misstep, so too were billions of fans worldwide who had anticipated a fast time from him.
His ‘red card’ has put the controversial one false start regulation in the spotlight. Some prominent IAAF officials have described the rule as a bit harsh, comparing the Jamaican’s disqualification to a case of athletics once again shooting itself in the foot, notwithstanding the fierce competition for sponsorships from other sports.
Two top British athletes – Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu (400m heats) and Dwain Chambers (100m semi-finals) were also victims of the ‘sudden death’ regulation.
Most pundits think it’s a crazy rule and have urged the IAAF bigwigs to revisit it. Even the beneficiary of Bolt’s slip, compatriot Yohan Blake, who eventually won the gold medal, admitted he felt no special joy winning this way.
Former 100M champion Kim Collins, the bronze medallist in Daegu, does not think the false start rule is the right one but believes it will stay because the IAAF thinks it is good for TV.
Before 2003, rules always allowed sprinters a second chance when they false-started. But because there were often so many athletes beating the gun, knowing they would have at least one reprieve, races were sometimes held up, leading to unhappy TV schedulers.
So the rule was amended to allow for one false-start with the second offender to get the boot, regardless of whether he or she had been responsible for the original false start.
This, too, did not work because of suspicions some slower starting athletes would deliberately jump the gun, knowing next time around, the quicker starters would have to be more cautious.
So earlier last year, the IAAF took the controversial zero tolerance route with 97 to 55 votes in favour.
Two years ago under the previous IAAF rule, Bolt false- started in his semi-final of the World Championships in Berlin. The rule then allowed for one false start.
Bolt won his semi in 9.89 seconds, then smashed his own world record with a time of 9.58 seconds two hours later in the final.
TV captured one of the greatest moments in the history of sports when Bolt ran that Berlin final. Now, in stark contrast, we have the Daegu disaster.
Many view the present rule as punitive to the point of being damaging to a sport (track and field) that has already lost much of its former lustre.
The argument is why punish track athletes with a no-second-chance rule when you don’t kick Tiger Woods off the course for slicing one into the gallery or order Michael Jordan off court for stopping the game with a solitary foul.
The IAAF has the power to make new rules but it’s unlikely to change the ‘false start’ rule any time soon.
Lord Sebastian Coe, chairman of London 2012, dismissed the idea of returning to the old system, warning the sport will not be pushed into a rapid turnaround.
But Coe was essentially a champion of middle-distance events (800M and 1,500M) where athletes are not subjected to pressure-cooker situations like sprinters on the starting blocks.
Hence, he is perhaps not the best spokesman for the pro-one-false-start lobby.
Lynford Christie, the great British sprinter who himself was disqualfied for making two false starts in the 100M at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, would be the better choice.
IAAF spokesman Nick Davies, in defending the one false-start rule, said: “This is sport – not show business.”
Although Davies is an old hand at the game, he is certainly wrong to say sports is not show business. He should know many sports rules have been changed at the behest of big TV stations.
False starts are considered time wasters and since time is money, the IAAF, bending to the demands of TV rights holders, introduced the ‘sudden death’ rule.
Also, to accommodate live TV coverage, the badminton scoring system has twice been changed.
Nowadays, athletes are even encouraged to use fashionable sports wear just to boost TV ratings.
In golf, the ratings have fluctuated with the on-off appearances of its beleaguered superstar, Tiger Woods.
The Football World Cup is dubbed the greatest show on Earth with the Olympic Games a close second. If all these do not make sports show business, then what does?
At the highest level, sports are pure theatre and people pay to be entertained by experts.
The issue here is, of course, about rules.
While no athletes are above the rules, there is no reason not to change bad rules.
The one false-start rule is ill-conceived because it leaves no room for second chance. This is bizarre, considering even felons are entitled to an appeal.