Controversial rule knocks Jamaican out of worlds 100 final

I’m sorry, but no. When Bolt left his blocks a full tenth of a second ahead of the gun – a century in sprint time – Usain Bolt knocked himself out of the 100 final. The rule is the rule. He knew it, it’s been there for two years and enforced for a year, and it didn’t spring up out of nowhere and cheat him out of what was due him.

The rule, which replaced a rule which charged the first false start to the field, with the second false start resulting in disqualification, is unpopular. It’s unsurprisingly very unpopular with sprinters and former sprinters, the most public, frequent and vehement complaints coming from Ato Boldon. He predicted when the rule first went into effect that we would see exactly the scenario that happened today – a superstar disqualified on the biggest stage. In my opinion, that prescience (which wasn’t particularly hard to predict, as stars have been dq’d on the big stage before, although none with Bolt’s stature) does not mean he’s right about the rule.

The arguments for the rule, eliminating the old “first false start charged to the field” rule, was that the rule was being used for gamesmanship, and was causing problems with meet and broadcast schedules.

The arguments against run the gamut, but in range from “we’ve never done it that way” to suggesting it’s too draconian to penalize an athlete for one mistake, to even suggesting it will depress fan interest in the sport if…well, if today happens.

The arguments for the rule are completely true. For the average fan, it was confusing and boring. The average, non-track-nut fan sees a false start and assumes the offending athlete will be dq’d. When they’re not, they don’t know what’s going on. The meet drags on, because every heat, every sprint race, has interminable delays while runners get set, leave the blocks, then have to get set again. And we all agree that the people we need to be reaching are the average, non-track-nut fans.

There is also a great deal of truth to the idea that they will be disappointed when a race is run without the star they expected to see. Nobody wants that.

But let’s be realistic here. The fans don’t just want to see Bolt. They don’t just want to see him win. They want a spectacle. Whether Bolt runs a 9.4 or storms off the track like he did this morning, the average viewer will be left stunned at what they’ve seen. And does anyone truly think that someone tuning in this morning just to watch Bolt, and no other reason, was planning to tune in tomorrow morning to see the women’s steeplechase? That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is that this spectacle has already created a new storyline and budding spectacle over the weekend. Had Bolt run 9.66 this morning and won, the headlines tomorrow would read “Bolt wins, no record”. The story would be that he isn’t up to his old standards. (Unless he ran 9.4, of course – but again, that’s the spectacle viewers want) And what random person will tune in to see a guy not live up to his own standards? But now…the world is talking about this. People are horrified, sad for him, upset at the rule, but they’re talking about the sport. And through the week, excitement is going to build about Bolt’s races this weekend. Will he start clean in the 200? He’s going to run angry now, we’ve never seen him like this, what could he do? The whole Jamaican team is upset, will the 4 x 100 be special now? Ratings for his races this weekend are going to explode.

I am in no way suggesting that it’s a good thing that Bolt was disqualified. I feel terrible for him, and I desperately wanted to watch him run, like everyone else. My point is that this isn’t some debacle that will spell the end of the sport. Rather, it creates new tension, new spectacle for the average viewer, and it holds the athletes to a proper standard.

Which brings us to another argument – that we didn’t get a “true” champion today, because of the rule. This is false on its face. In order to become a champion, the athlete needs to stay healthy, stay in their lane, not false start, get through rounds, and be faster than all other athletes under legal conditions at race time. Fail in just one of those ways, you are not the champion. History is full of champions who were not the best or the fastest, but who met all the criteria – health, fitness, stamina, and being the best under legal conditions. Let’s not forget that the race was also run without Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay, the two fastest runners in history not named Bolt. If he’d won, would we say we didn’t get a “true” champion because of their absence? Of course not. They didn’t stay healthy. Not their fault, but those are the breaks. To be a champion, one must earn the title in all ways. Yohan Blake, today’s winner, didn’t schedule the World Championships nor did he shove Bolt out of his blocks (I’ve seen the video, for those blaming Blake. Sorry, he may have twitched – slightly – but Bolt left on his own).

It is difficult to be a champion. And for winning to be meaningful, disappointment and failure must be possible, even likely. And for the people who view sports, we do it knowing our team or favorite athlete may fail, and that tension – the exquisite balance between sublime success and abject failure – is what keeps us coming back for more.

Don’t blame the rule. Usain Bolt left the blocks early. He was not mentally prepared to be the champion today. It’s sad and frustrating for everyone involved, but he is a professional and will prove or disprove his greatness in how he responds to this.

As has been said, there is no perfect false start rule – but in my opinion, the current rule is fair to the athletes whether they like it or not, and it provides an easy-to-understand and watchable event for the fans.

Please also refer to this and this article for more information.

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