Every four years, the nation tunes in to the Summer Olympics to watch a few marquee events, such as the men's 100-meter final. Apart from that, the sport goes largely unnoticed by the casual sports fan. But every so often, an athlete such as Carl Lewis comes along, making people want to follow the sport more than once every four years.
Track and field is lucky right now to have such an athlete in Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who burst onto the scene with three gold medals — and three world records — at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Bolt followed that up with three more golds at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, lowering the world records in the 100 meters (9.58 seconds) and 200 meters (19.19 seconds) to numbers that were unthinkable prior to his emergence. Add in the Jamaican's exotic celebrations and his love of partying, and you've got a man capable of carrying the sport.
However, thanks to a controversial rule change that took effect two years ago, there's a chance that Bolt — and his training partner/rival Yohan Blake, the defending world champion — won't be able to run in the 100-meter final in London on Aug. 5.
Starting in 2010, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) changed its false start policy to one strike and you're out. That means that if a star like Bolt false starts once — even in a preliminary round — he would be out of the competition. The rule has been near-universally panned by critics, and for good reason — it just might be the dumbest rule in sports.
The rule change initially came about for a couple of mostly honorable reasons. Previously, the rule had been that the first false start by any athlete was charged to the field, with all subsequent false starts resulting in the offending runner's removal from the competition. But some runners had tried to take advantage of the system, either by trying to predict when the starting gun would fire — thereby getting a better start — or by deliberately false starting to increase the likelihood that one of their opponents would then false start and eliminate themselves.
The old system also led to delays after a false start, which put off television audiences. The thinking was that by enforcing harsher penalties, fewer athletes would be inclined to false start, resulting in a smoother broadcast. Instead, it has led to controversy.
The main problem with the rule is that it has the potential to prevent the sport's biggest stars from competing in the biggest races. With three rounds of qualifying and a final, athletes like Bolt have four chances to be disqualified in the 100 meters.
Those who don't think that such a scenario is possible need only look back to last year's world championships in Daegu, South Korea, where Bolt was disqualified from the men's 100-meter final for false starting. Not only did it rob a worldwide audience of the chance to see Bolt, but it prevented Bolt from squaring off against Blake, who many thought was capable of defeating his fellow Jamaican. Blake won the race but quickly became an afterthought as the attention focused on Bolt.
The other issue is that the rule is unfair to competitors who have spent four years preparing for a race that lasts less than 10 seconds. It's too harsh to negate all that hard work because of one false movement.
Most sports' governing bodies like to say that no athlete is bigger than the sport, but for a fringe sport (at least in the U.S.) like track and field, the main way the sport can become popular — read: make money — is by embracing stars like Bolt. Track and field has done this to a point, but by leaving open the chance that Bolt could be immediately disqualified for merely twitching in the starting blocks, the sport is not maximizing his potential.
Now, after Blake defeated Bolt at both the 100 meters and 200 meters at the Jamaican championships, the rivalry between the two training partners has a chance to be one of the dominant stories of the Olympics. It would be a shame if the two men were prevented from putting on a show because of a dumb rule.
Photo via Facebook/Usain Bolt