Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Usain Bolt and the Worst Rule in Sports

I'm not someone who spends hours watching sports. But I do like to catch weekly English Premier League highlights, an occasional NBA game (when the owners and players aren’t playing greedy vs greedier and scuppering the upcoming season, of course) and the sprint events at the Olympics and World Championships. Indeed, my father used to take me to the British Olympic and World Championship trials when I was a lad, creating indelible memories of my athletic heroes defying the British summertime rain in their pursuit of speed. So I’m hopping mad today.

Why? Because the worst rule in sports has:

a)        harmed the legacy of the world’s greatest sprinter, Usain Bolt
b)      further deflated the sport’s flagging global popularity
c)    ruined the spectacle of the blue ribbon event, the 100 meters

I took great pleasure in showing my two sons Bolt’s exploits in the heats and semi-final – namely, leaving the rest of the field so far behind in the first half of each race that he casually jogged to the finish line and still won. Since the Olympics of ancient Greece, humans have been fascinated by sheer speed, and my two- and four-year-old boys are no different – Bolt’s performances prompted them to race round and round the main floor of our house, bumping into each other, me and whatever furniture rudely obstructed their giddy, joyous laps of the living and dining rooms.

So I was relishing the chance to share with them the experience of Bolt laying waste to the under-matched field in the final. But no, the IAAF had to go and ruin my day. IAAF stands for International Amateur Athletics Federation, but in my mind, it now means Inane Assault Against Fun. Or something of that nature. Whatever I want to call them, their silly rulebook stated that Bolt jumped the gun, and was thus DQ'd.

Here’s the skinny: Last year the IAAF introduced a new rule, and one that it had been trying to push through for a long time: if an athlete commits a single false start, they’re disqualified.

Now, for as long as I can remember, the rule had been two false starts and you’re out. But for some reason best known to themselves, the IAAF bureaucrats, most of whom probably couldn’t run from their couch to their refrigerator, changed it. The thinking was that crowds don’t have the patience for multiple athletes to try to jump the starter’s gun. So first they issued an edict stating that the field was allowed one false start, and whoever committed the next was done for the day.

And then, when athletes protested that this new rule was silly, the IAAF committed its crime by altering their Should Just Left it Alone Rule: anyone who false starts is out. What they didn’t consider is the human fallibility of those athletes, whose finishing places are (especially in the 100 meters) separated by hundredths of a second. Their body and brain will of course try to go on the “B of the bang,” as my childhood idol (in a non-idolatrous way) and former Olympic champ Linford Christie used to say, to gain that crucial advantage.

The old standard is superior. It’s much better to give a runner a slap on the wrist for one false start, and then ask him to kindly leave the premises if he repeats his error. If I’m at a stadium, have paid hundreds of dollars to watch the most popular event at a track meet and have been looking forward to seeing the best athletes compete for title of World’s Fastest Man (or Woman, depending on your event of choice), I’m going to be pretty ticked if it can’t happen because the field is robbed of its brightest star. Heck, it’s bad enough from an armchair!

And so it was with Bolt yesterday. The laws of physics make it highly unlikely that the 6-foot-5-inch world record holder can get out of the blocks first. So he got a little over-anxious and took off too early. BIG DEAL. It was in the eyes of the IAAF law, and he lost the chance to defend his 100m title just like that. I almost copied Bolt’s reaction of ripping of his shirt in disgust!

What would’ve happened under the old system is that he’d have chilled out, stayed on the starting line a moment longer, and likely won his second consecutive world championships by a country mile. His legacy is enhanced, his sponsorship deals grow, and, more importantly, the profile of the sport is increased. Track and field has slumped in popularity in the past 20 years, and with the London Olympics coming up next summer, it needed a shot in the arm. Over the past four years, Bolt has provided that with his once-in-a-lifetime speed, freaky genetics and trademark ‘Lightning Bolt’ celebrations.

Not this time. No, the IAAF thinks it is better to speed up (pardon the pun) it’s marquee event by harshly punishing false starts than to present the most competitive race to the fans. Wrong.

The irony is that Bolt supported the rule change because he had never false started before. Might want to re-think that affirmation now, good sir. The popular opinion on news websites and blogs seems to be that Bolt’s opponents in the World Championships 200 meters, and indeed in the 100m and 200m at the 2012 Olympics, had better beware his quest for redemption. And they’re probably right. I hope we will see Bolt return to the form that enabled him to lower the 100m record to an unworldly 9.58, and to eclipse Michael Johnson’s never-thought-I’d-see-anyone-beat-it time in the 200m by over a tenth of a second.

But maybe Bolt will now hold back in his blocks for fear of The Worst Sports Rule Ever befouling him once more, maybe just long enough for challengers such as his compatriot Asafa Powell, American champ Tyson Gay, or Bolt’s training partner and newly crowned champ Johan Blake to catch him. Perhaps long enough to deny him the chance to re-write the record books once again, as well as the opportunity to inspire the next generation of would-be sprinters (though I fear my slow genes will limit my sons’ own racing ambitions –sorry boys! – either way).

In conclusion, there must be the element of chance and surprise in sports, and each competitor is subject to the rulebook, but when a rule that is easily changed conspires against the best possible performances, the next step is simple: change it!

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