The cruelest rule in sports: Track and field’s zero-tolerance false start policy

Only one outcome to his first Olympics would devastate U.S. sprinter Ryan Bailey more than not running fast enough to make the finals in the 100 meters or suffering an injury mid-race.

Anything would be better than a false start.

A late bloomer who didn't set foot on a track until his sophomore year of high school and focused more on football than sprinting until late in his senior year, Bailey has worked relentlessly ever since to harness his raw talent. The 23-year-old Oregon native can hardly bear to consider how frustrating it would be to have all those hours of conditioning, weightlifting and speed drills go for naught because of an ill-timed flinch in the starting blocks.

"That's the worst-case scenario," Bailey said. "I even feel like a false start is worse than getting hurt because you don't get a chance to run. To be automatically out before you take one step, that's the worst possible feeling."

Fear of false starting is more prevalent among sprinters and hurdlers at this year's Olympics than any in the past because of a controversial rule change put into effect two years ago. Instead of charging a first false start to the field with the second disqualifying the offending runner, the new rule ousts athletes the first time they false start.

That zero-tolerance policy is as cruel and unforgiving as any rule in sports, more sudden than a sixth foul in the NBA Finals, more damaging than a red card at the World Cup and more common than an unsigned scorecard at one of golf's majors. It has induced tantrums from otherwise mature adults and waylaid some of the legends of the sport.

At the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea last August, 100 meters world record holder Usain Bolt pulled his shirt over his face and slapped a wall in anguish after leaving the blocks early in the finals of his signature race. Only one day earlier, meet officials had to escort a shell-shocked Christine Ohuruogu off the track in shock after the 2008 Olympic 400 meters champ lost focus and false started in a preliminary round.

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Those mishaps and a handful of lower-profile disqualifications have some in track and field circles worried fans will be deprived of the chance to see some of the sport's greatest stars run in London. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson told the Daily Mirror this past weekend that "he's absolutely concerned that we could lose a Bolt." Kellie Wells, a contender in the women's 100-meter hurdles, echoed those sentiments earlier this week.

"With the crowd noise at big meets when there are marquee athletes on the track, it's very, very possible somebody gets disqualified," she said. "I just pray, knock on wood, that it's not me and has nothing to do with my race."

What led international track and field's governing body to alter the false-start rule was the desire to streamline the sport and eliminate gamesmanship.

Under the old rules, sprinters or hurdlers notorious for slow reaction times would attempt to gain an edge by guessing when the starting pistol would fire, knowing the penalty would be charged to the field rather than to themselves. The multiple false starts slowed down meets and made it difficult for TV networks working within a specific timeslot.

In their zeal to make the sport more TV friendly, IAAF officials failed to consider the consequences of their ham-handed rule change. TV executives would rather telecasts exceed a time limit by a couple minutes than deprive viewers of the chance to see some of the sport's main attractions race.

"The sport suffers when Christine Ohuruogu and Usain Bolt get thrown out of Worlds," four-time Olympic medalist and NBC track and field analyst Ato Boldon said. "They changed the rule saying they were trying to save time on television, but that did not work. That has not been the case. The reason the rule hasn't been changed back is you have an organization that's trying to save face."

Since the IAAF ignored the global outcry after Bolt's disqualification last August, sprinters and hurdlers harboring dreams of an Olympic medal in 2012 have tried to adjust to the new rules. Most have said they they'll be more cautious than usual in preliminary rounds and they will simply react to the gun in the final rather than risk trying to guess when the starter's pistol will go off.

Tianna Madison, one of the U.S. sprinters trying to dethrone the Jamaicans in the women's 100 meters, spends two or three practice sessions a week perfecting her reaction time and acceleration out of the blocks. Coach Raina Reider hasn't discussed a strategy with Madison because she has yet to false start this year, but he expects her and her peers instinctually to be a bit timid, especially since the computerized starting blocks at the Olympics are designed to catch every twitch.

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"I think the reaction times are going to be bad," Reider said. "I think people are going to be a lot more cautious. I don't foresee anyone making the same mistake Bolt did last year. The fan is going to suffer because sprinters aren't going to run as fast. Slower reaction times will be the norm."

At an Olympics in which rain, wind and chilly temperatures could already be detrimental to fast times, the last thing sprinters and hurdlers need is another impediment. That's why it's disappointing to athletes like Bailey that Bolt's disqualification wasn't enough to force the rule to be changed back.

An underdog in a field that includes Bolt, Yohan Blake, Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin, Bailey knows he won't be able to overcome a sluggish start in a race that lasts less than 10 seconds. He intends to react out of the blocks the way he always does and hope it works to his advantage.

"People are going to be starting really timid," Bailey said. "They're not going to risk it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a lot of people. It only comes around every four years. If you false start this, it's going to haunt you for a while."

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