Agony of defeat: French hurdler breaks down after being disqualified by one of sports' harshest rules

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RIO DE JANEIRO — One of the harshest rules in sports ended Wilhem Belocian’s Olympics early.

The promising 21-year-old French hurdler was disqualified in round one of the 110-meter hurdles Monday night because he left the blocks a split second before the starting pistol sounded.

Belocian responded to the ruling with anguish, knocking over the nearest hurdle, kneeling on the wet track and burying his head in his hands before pounding the ground in frustration. His eyes were still red and tear-stained 15 minutes later when he blew past reporters in the mixed zone without talking.

French hurdler Wilhem Belocian was distraught after his false start. (Getty Images)
French hurdler Wilhem Belocian was distraught after his false start. (Reuters)

Fear of false starting is more prevalent among sprinters and hurdlers these days because of a controversial rule change that went into effect six years ago. Instead of charging a first false start to the field with the second disqualifying the offending runner, athletes are now ousted the first time they flinch early.

The zero-tolerance policy is intended to speed up the sport and prevent gamesmanship. Sprinters or hurdlers notorious for slow reaction times can no longer gain an edge by guessing when the starter’s gun will fire, a habit that slowed down meets and made it tough for TV networks working within a specific time slot.

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The downside to the rule is the potential to lose marquee runners without them even getting the chance to race. At the 2011 World Championships, Usain Bolt suffered his only loss of the past eight years at a major event when he was disqualified for leaving the blocks early in the finals of the 100 meters.

Wilhem Belocian's Olympics ended before his race even started. (Reuters)
Wilhem Belocian’s Olympics ended before his race even started. (Reuters)

It’s undoubtedly frustrating for Belocian to see a year’s worth of conditioning, weightlifting and speed drills go for naught, but in this case he has nobody to blame but himself.

The top four hurdlers in heat 4 would have advanced to Tuesday’s semifinal and Belocian had the third-fastest season best among the nine runners. He had an excellent chance to make it through, even if he had gotten off to a below-average start.