False starts made worse

This little tidbit appeared in the New York Times today. It seems the IAAF is proposing to do away with “do over” false starts. For the unitiated, here’s a basic primer:

A false start happens when a runner literally “jumps the gun” at the start of a race. Imagine six 400m sprinters lined up in their blocks. They’re crouched down with one knee on the ground. The starter (the person holding the gun) says, “On your marks.”  Next, the starter says, “Set” and all the runners’ butts go up in the air, knees off the ground.  Then there is a short pause, after which the gun fires, and the runners start running. In a false start, a runner — let’s say the runner in lane 2 — starts running after the starter has said “set” but before the gun has been fired. When this happens, the gun is fired again to signal to the runners that a false start has occurred and everyone makes their way back to the start to try again.

The accepted rule today is that first false starter is forgiven. However, if in the same race there is another false start — let’s say that this time it’s the runner in lane 5 — that second false starter is eliminated from the race. The first offender, runner in lane 2, suffers no penalty.

There are obvious problems with this. For one, it can be abused by a savvy runner. A runner is free to commit a false start on purpose, with no repercussions, increasing the chances of eliminating a competitor in a second false start. Also, false starts tend to rattle runners. If you watch track races, you’ll see the racers going through all kinds of exercises to focus on the task at hand. Some of the rituals (slapping themselves seems to be the newest trend) seem ridiculous, but I believe they serve a purpose and that a break in concentration in the miliseconds before the racer is ready to perform has got to take its toll.

The proposed change would drop the “first time forgiven” approach, immediately eliminating the first person who false starts. On its face, it sounds like a good change. But it fails to take into consideration the vagaries of race starts. By this I mean the variations in the time between “set” being called and the gun being fired. Watch enough track and field meets and you’ll notice that some are rife with false starts. Why? Usually because the starter “holds” the runners too long. Imagine being lined up in your blocks, then told to (get) “set,” and then being held for two or three seconds. Every muscle is twitching to get started, but the gun doesn’t fire.

I’ve watched meets where there are multiple “two false start” races, which is truly tragic. And it’s usually because there’s some geriatric standing there with a gun, holding runners way beyond what could be considered a reasonable pause. For awhile, I began to develop a conspiracy theory that this trend was a deliberate attempt to add drama and tension to televised coverage. In fact, for me it had the opposite effect, as I was forced to sit through many wasted minutes of false start coverage at the expense of more expansive coverage of longer events (“Wow. Watching Carmelita Jeter walk slowly back to the blocks and spend three minutes slapping herself is great, especially when it means I only get to see the last three minutes of the men’s 5000m race.”)

But I don’t really think these things are deliberate. I think it’s simple ineptitude. Worse, no one at these meets seems to notice that there’s a connection between delayed gun firing times and recurrent false start problems. The long hold times continue, and so do the false starts.

I think it’s fine to change the false start rules, but only if a standard “hold” time is adopted. That might mean automating starters, replacing humans with slow trigger fingers with a machine that will always fire a gun, say, exactly one second after “set.” But it need not even come to that. If you can find a starter who can say “a thousand one” and pull a trigger, you’ll probably reduce an enormous number of false starts with that action alone. Failing to address the common cause of false starts  just puts more pressure (and punishment) on athletes, and will likely go one of two ways: either we’ll see the same number of false starts or they’ll drop off — right along with race times, as runners hesitate to get out of the blocks quickly for fear of being booted out of the race.

3 Responses

  1. One good thing about the new rule is that it would speed up live television coverage and you MIGHT get to see more laps of the 5000.

    I agree that the present rule is advantageous to slow starters as they can deliberately false start and thus slow the subsequent start for all runners. Interestingly, in swimming there is a no false start rule (if you false start you’re disqualified), and the swimmers have become accustomed to this and rarely false start, even in the 50m race.

    By the way, in the 800m, runners don’t use blocks and there’s no “set” called by the starter. Runners do a standing start. The starter just calls “on your marks”, and when the field is steady, fires the gun.

    Good idea about an ‘automated gun’. That could work for sprints (400m down) … the starter says “set”, presses a button, and the gun fires within 1-2 seconds of that (or some appropriate time span).

  2. Thanks for the correction, Ewen. I’ll edit to hide my ignorance from all but the comment readers.

  3. There was a false start in the NYC Marathon one year. It began a years-long process of NYRRC (as it was then known) of coming up with measures to prevent a recurrence.

    The runners were not called back.

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