The time has come for World Athletics to get out of its outdated false start policy


This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinions for CBC Sports. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.

What can you do in a thousandth of a second?

Voluntarily, I mean.

Hang up on an automated call?

Block follow request from a forex/crypto scammer on Instagram?

Hit “don’t recommend channel” when YouTube’s algorithm suggests a Joe Rogan/Jordan Peterson collab?

Many of us could make many of these decisions in a flash, but not in 0.001 seconds. In the real world, milliseconds barely exist. Everything we can measure so closely is a matter of reflex or luck.

But in the alternate dimension known as the World Championships in Athletics, a thousandth of a second can determine the difference between a good start and an illegal start; an avid competitor and a cheater.

WATCH | Plea to abolish the false start rule in athletics:

It’s time to abolish the false start rule in athletics

After seeing several athletes disqualified at the World Championships in Athletics, Morgan Campbell pleads to get rid of the rule.

Witness Devon Allen, the future Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver and third-fastest 110-meter hurdles runner in history, looking to medal in Eugene, Oregon, where he competed as a middle schooler at the University of Oregon. He recorded a reaction time of 0.101 seconds in his semifinal on Sunday. A quick result, but legal under World Athletics rules, in line with the governing body’s ideas about reacting as quickly as possible to a starter’s gun.

In the final, Allen reacted in 0.099 seconds – a negligible difference everywhere except World Athletics guidelines, which state that any figure faster than 0.10 seconds is a false start and the result of an athlete anticipating the gun. . Common sense says Allen couldn’t have decided to react a thousandth or two faster in the final, but World Athletics zero tolerance rules said he had to go for it. He offered a mild protest, but officials shoved him away from the start line and the TV show kept up its brisk pace.

Allen was the third athlete on Sunday night to earn a false start disqualification. Julien Alfred (reaction time: 0.095) and TyNia Gaither (0.093) were both sent off from their 100m semi-finals for reacting after the shot was fired, but before the rules stated they should have TO DO.

Veteran track coach PJ Vazel has counted every reaction time in every men’s 100m and 110m hurdles race at every world championship since 2011. All of those runs produced 30 reaction times faster than 0.115 seconds – but 25 of them came this week. Most years, this number is zero.

WATCH | US hurdler Devon Allen on the false start at the world championships:

Devon Allen speaks out on disqualification from the 110m final of the World Championships in Athletics

CBC’s Scott Russell caught up with the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver after his false start and subsequent disqualification from the men’s 100-meter hurdles final at the World Championships in Athletics in Eugene, Ore.

Is this a new trend?

The athletics equivalent of a crime wave?

Do these numbers show us that sprinters are getting tripped up trying to circumvent the false start system, or is something else going on?

I’m not a gambler, but if I was, I’d bet on “something else”.

The huge year-over-year jump in near-illegal reaction times is a strong hint that the new gear is more sensitive.

We know something is up with the starting blocks in Eugene.

They escaped the feet of Canadian Aaron Brown in the 200m preliminaries – a fairly common accident in high school competitions, but almost unheard of at the world level.

After his own first-round run, American Noah Lyles described how these blocks differed from those in virtually every other high-level competition. The footpegs are hinged, the lower segment fixed in place, while the upper can be raised or lowered.

β€œThey are completely different blocks,” he told reporters after his preliminary. “That front lip really throws it all away. I was adjusting my blocks way longer than normal.”

So if the changes to the blocks include improved sensors, all the new reaction time data makes more sense.

The stat does not measure a runner’s exit from the blocks; just the pressure that sprinters exert with their feet before taking their first step. If the equipment is more sensitive, it will register that pressure sooner and probably cut many people’s reaction time by a few thousandths, even if athletes react the same way they always have.

So what looks like an increase in sprinters trying to jump the gun is probably just a more accurate picture of their capillary trigger reflexes in action.

WATCH | Breaking down Devon Allen’s historic 110m hurdles time:

NFL player and Olympian Devon Allen sets historic time in 110-meter hurdles

Morgan Campbell breaks down an incredible weekend on the track. An American hurdler clocks the third-fastest time in the world as Shericka Jackson beats Elaine Thompson-Herah in the 200 meters.

It’s not like attaching a camera to a crossroads to record people running red lights. Think instead of football hopefuls going from hand-timed 40-meter sprints to electronically measured sprints. The switch instantly turns 4.1s into 4.3s, and the sticker shock hits prospects hard. This does not mean that they have become slower. They just have more specific information.

None of this is a problem if World Athletics has revised its reaction time guidelines. But its unique false start rule, which already coexists badly with the cutting nature of high-level sprinting, is not compatible with hypersensitive equipment. In his post-disqualification comments, Allen hinted at the only logical, but completely absurd compromise.

β€œI will make sure not to react so quickly next time,” he told reporters on Sunday.

Keep in mind that sprinters and hurdlers are the only athletes to perform under this level of pressure without margin for error. If a high jumper’s inflated jersey brushes against the bar and knocks it down, they still have two more attempts at that height. A single spike over the line gets a red flag for a long jumper, but long jumpers get six attempts. Distance runners elbow, jostle and veer into each other’s lanes, but disqualifications come only after lengthy reviews to determine intent and the extent to which other runners were hindered.

Sometimes we see this type of discretion among officials in fairly high-level matches. A blatant false start always triggers a DQ, but an inadvertent false start often prompts officials to reset the field and start over. As we have discussed elsewhere, spectators do not fill seats to watch marshall marshalls.

But at the Olympics and world championships, an unintentional jolt in the starting blocks could send a sprinter ejected from a final, and a quick reaction to the gun could trigger a rule that undoes an entire season of hard work for a contender to a medal – like Allen, Alfred, Gaither and even Usain Bolt can attest.

World Athletics itself suspects the situation is untenable, or at least unfair. Scientists commissioned by the governing body in 2009 to study reaction times suggested lowering the redline to 0.08 seconds to account for extremely, but achievable, rapid reactions to the starting pistol shot.

Thirteen years is more than a career for any sprinter not named Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, but in all that time World Athletics have not budged on their reaction time standard . So we’re stuck with a rule that’s been around since the 1960s, even as training, technology, and athletes advance.

Every person in every sprint race is subject to this rule, so in that sense the playing field is level.

But the numbers tell you it’s far from fair.