Will New False-Start Rule Create Problems?

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The International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body that makes the rules for international track and field events, recently came out with a rule change that has ruffled feathers throughout the running community. Since its creations, many high-profile sprinters, including American Tyson Gay, have publicly come out against it.

The rule in question concerns false starts in running events. As the rules stood before this change, runners were permitted one false start. If they false started a second time, they were disqualified. This rule has stood the test of time and seems to work out well for everyone involved.

The new rule makes a radical change. Rather than giving athletes a break on one false start, it disqualifies them for false starting even once.

The motivation for this change is not complicated. IAAF officials have publicly stated that the old rule allows runners to deliberately jump before or at the gun without fear of punishment, and that the new rule forces them to abide by the rules more closely.

But the thing that the IAAF doesn’t seem to understand is that false starts are generally not deliberate. Sure, there have probably been a few cases where athletes have gone early either to throw off their opponents or to pick up signals on how the other players plan to approach the race. But this is undoubtedly rare, and there’s no sense in punishing everyone due to a few misbehavers.

The fact is that adrenaline plays a large role in these situations. When a sprinter is standing at the starting line at the Olympics waiting for the gun to go off, he is so full of adrenaline that it’s a strain just to keep himself from taking off. False starts happen when someone in the crowd makes a noise, when an insect flies by, or when one of the other runners flinches. It’s not the athlete’s fault; it’s the adrenaline.

This new rule comes with the potential for disaster. Even the biggest running stars tend to false start from time to time. The aforementioned Tyson Gay made a pertinent point by asking what would happen if Usain Bolt made a false start in the 2012 Olympics. Fans would likely not take too kindly to the instant disqualification of one of sprinting’s biggest stars.

With that issue aside, the real question remains: Why fix something that isn’t broken?

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