How to improve the IAAF false start rule?

Usain Bolt was disqualified from the final of the 2011 World Championship 100m for one false start. The IAAF rules are now coming under fire for being too harsh, since they afford no latitude for accidental false starts.

The false start rule used to be more lenient. Historically, every athlete would receive a warning on their first false start and disqualification on their second. In 2003, the rule changed so that the first false start warning applied to the entire field rather than just the offending athlete. In 2010, warnings were eliminated entirely. Avoiding delay to TV schedules was a key driver for streamlining the rule, but I suspect that broadcasters would rather show “The Lightning” competing than have him disqualified on their account.

So, let’s explore the rule and consider alternatives.

The rule has two main objectives:
1. To prevent athletes who false start from gaining an unfair advantage; and
2. To discourage repeated false starts, since these can disrupt competition schedule.

Objective 1 is currently met by “recalling” and restarting races in which a false start occurs. It could also be met by applying a penalty to offending athletes – similar to the drive-through penalty that errant Formula 1 drivers may experience, or the penalty that show jumpers receive when they knock down jumps. Perhaps add a 0.5 second penalty for every 100m of race distance for athletes who false start. A more radical alternative would be to measure each athlete’s race time from when they start running rather than when the gun fires. This approach could remove the need to recall races in which a false start occurs. Any false starter would receive no advantage; probably the opposite because they would act as a pacemaker for others to chase down. Both alternatives would have the disadvantage that first-to-cross-the-line would no longer necessarily be the winner – spectators could be confused in false start scenarios. Also, both alternatives would require changes to the timekeeping approach and supporting equipment.

Objective 2 is currently met by penalising every false start with disqualification from that race (then restarting the race without the offending athlete). Another approach would be to “warn” athletes and disqualify them after repeated false starts – either within the same race or cumulatively across several races. For example, athletes could receive “points on their licence” for every false start and be disqualified when they hit a threshold level of unexpired points. Another alternative approach would be to allow races to continue races regardless of false starts and disqualify the offending athlete(s) after the race. Both alternatives have drawbacks. Administering “false start points” across races would be a new process which could be complex to establish and operate in practice. Also, continuing rather than recalling races may be unfeasible or unfair in cases where one athlete’s premature movement triggers others to move before the gun.

Are any of these more radical alternatives better than the current approach? In practice I suspect not.

The IAAF should ask the athletes what they think. For simplicity, I suggest the best option would be to reinstate the IAAF rules from 2003: warn the entire field on the first false start and subsequently disqualify any any athlete who false starts. This approach seems to provide a sensible balance between schedule protection and accident tolerance.

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