Bolt’s DQ at worlds illustrates stupidity of new false-start rule
Usain Bolt clearly false-started at the beginning of the 100 meters final
But the current false-start rule is bad for the sport, especially in this case
Bolt is an iconic figure in a sport with limited appeal outside the Olympics
DAEGU, South Korea – Here was the moment, the only moment that truly matters beyond the four walls of a flagging sport. It was 8:41 Sunday night in a stadium set among green hillsides outside this industrial city. The seats were no more than two-thirds filled, but the halfhearted turnout of apathetic locals whose leaders simply bought a world championship event, is more than balanced by millions watching (or readying to watch later) on televisions and computer screens around the world.
This was the final of the 100 meters at the 13th world championships of track and field, and that is Usain Bolt’s time. The announcer spoke Bolt’s name and the big man stepped forward like Bono or Gaga seizing the microphone. Bolt playfully fixed his hair and goatee, using the massive stadium screen like a bathroom mirror; and then pointed first to the opponent on his left (Walter Dix of the U.S.) and then on his right (Yohan Blake, Bolt’s Jamaican teammate), each time shaking his head. Then he used both hands like he was chopping carrots with a cleaver, fingers outstretched to show his own lane, as to say, it’s just me and the clock.
Bolt does not just run footraces (although he does that much faster than any man in history), he performs a one-man show that lasts from several minutes before the gun until long after the finish. His work is not just watched, it is experienced. "People want to see him,’’ Kim Collins, the 35-year-old age-defying veteran from St. Kitts and Nevis would say after winning a bronze medal in Sunday’s race. "The show must go on.’’ That show has made Bolt the only international celebrity in the sport and, perilously, the only real reason for anyone but card-carrying track nuts to watch it.
PHOTOS: Famous False Starts
But since the remarkable 15-month period in 2008-09 when Bolt not only took the world record in the 100 meters from 9.73 to 9.58 and in the 200 meters from 19.32 to 19.19 and created the one-stop shopping entertainment superstar persona of Usain Bolt, he has turned oddly mortal. His times have been slower, his dominance muted. But here in Korea on Saturday night, he was brilliant in his first-round heat. And then he was brilliant again in his semifinal early on Sunday evening, shutting down 70 meters into an easy win. In two races, he had brought back that unmistakable ability – Jordan had it, Tiger had it, Vick has it – that something incredible might just happen.
So it was that he settled into the blocks in lane five at the starter’s command of “Take your marks.” At the call of “Set,” Bolt rose with the other seven starters, as a slight breeze whispered past them. And then he lurched forward, officially, .104 seconds before the gun was fired.
A second gun cracked, signaling a false start detected by the automated system that senses early pressure on the starting blocks. There was no question, even to the naked eye, that it was Bolt. Tyson Gay, the injured U.S. sprinter who is the second-fastest (9.69) man in history behind Bolt, was watching in the stadium. “I was shocked,” said Gay. “It took some air out of me.”
But let’s get one thing straight here: Bolt absolutely false-started. In fact, it was the 56-game hitting streak of false starts, a clear and obvious jump that could be used to educate young track fans on what a false start looks like. As soon as the second gun went off, there was an audible gasp in the stadium. While Koreans are clearly not track-crazy, the worlds are attended in solid numbers by serious track fans from all over the globe. All of them knew that Bolt was the guy who jumped and they knew what that meant:
Because of a ridiculous rule enacted by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, the international governing body of track and field) and put into effect on Jan. 1, 2010, any athlete who false starts once is disqualified from the race. There had been previous false start rules; from 2003-2009, a first false start was charged to the field, with a second slapped on the offending runner, disqualifying him. So Bolt was gone.
He tossed off his singlet while walking back past the starting blocks. As the stadium continued to buzz, seven sprinters restarted their pre-race routine. “I really didn’t think they would kick him out,” said Dix. “They have him on every poster.” Dix also made a conscious decision to sit in the blocks. “You know if they are going to take out a big guy like that,” said Dix, “They’ll take me out next, so I’ve got to stay in those blocks.”
Bolt was seen in stadium cameras slamming the walls behind the starting area, and then leaning against the fall. The race was definitively anticlimactic, won by promising 21-year-old Jamaican Yohan Blake in 9.92 seconds into a significant headwind. Dix got the silver in front of Collins. Good for all three of them, but they became a subplot as soon as Bolt jumped.
When the race was finished, Bolt left the stadium through a long tunnel to the adjacent warmup track. He declined to answer questions. He was met by his longtime coach, Glen Mills, who briefly embraced Bolt and then ordered him to run four 50-meter cool-down sprints, which he dutifully did, cruising alone on the blue track as if he had raced. He then took a brief rubdown from a Jamaican team masseuse before falling into a folding chair while Vilma Charlton, 64, a three-time Jamaican Olympian and now an official with country’s federation, rubbed his shoulders.
Mills had been sitting nearby through all of it. “He’s only human,” said Mills, who is as old-school, seen-it-all as Bolt is cutting edge. Asked what time Bolt was ready to run, Mills asked what the wind had been, thought about it for a few seconds and then said, “I think he would have run in the sixties,” meaning nine-point-sixty-something (which only two men in history – Bolt and Gay – have done, and nobody, ever, into a headwind). Bolt had started sensationally in each of his first two 100s here, and when he starts well, he’s unbeatable by other humans. “They were good starts,” said Mills, breaking in a laugh. “But they were at the wrong time.”
(Of course, starting well leaves a sprinter flirting with jumping the gun. It’s remarkable that Bolt does not false start often, because in big races, he clearly attacks the start).