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Monday, August 29, 2011

The Blake-Bolt false start dispute

Did Blake flinch, and was Bolt unfairly disqualified?

So it may be a new day, but perhaps not surprisingly, the debate about the men's 100m final has continued. But with one unexpected twist.  Rather than talking about the "what if Bolt had not false started?", this morning I woke to the question of "Should Blake, and not Bolt, have been given the false start?".

The question was raised on Letsrun.com, but came via all-athletics.com, and basically, it has been noticed in slow-motion replays that Yohan Blake, who starts in Lane 6 to the immediate right of Usain Bolt, twitches very slightly in the "get set" position.  Below is a video, which is courtesy of Letsrun.com, showing the start.  The moment in question is at around 13 seconds, so you may need to play it back and forth a few times

You'll see Blake's left leg move on the block, and then Bolt jumps out.  It was very clearly a false start by Bolt, make no mistake.  The question is whether the twitch by Blake, that tiny movement, should have constituted a false start or not?  And if "yes", then should he have been disqualified along with Bolt, or were they two independent events?

It's important to explain the rules on this one. In terms of the starting, the rules say the following:
  1. From Rule 162.5. "On the command 'On your marks' or 'Set,' as the case may be, all athletes shall at once and without delay assume their full and final set position."
  2. From Rule 162.5. "After the command 'On your marks' or 'Set,' if an athlete disturbs other athletes in the race through sound or otherwise, the Starter shall abort the start."
  3. From Rule 162.8. "The Starter should warn or disqualify only such athlete or athletes who, in his opinion, were responsible for the false start."
Technically speaking, there is an aspect of each of the above rules that was contravened by Blake with that tiny movement.  Realistically, however, it's a little more tricky than this.

If you read the IAAF Starting Guidelines (kindly sent by JC, thanks!), you'll see point 5.2 say that following:
There is no perfect holding time in the set position. In reality, there must be a discernible hold to ensure all athletes are steady and in the correct starting position. The Starter must stop a race if:
  • An athlete, after assuming a full and final set position, commences his start before receiving the report of the gun (Rule 162.6).  
  • He receives a signal from the false start equipment. 
  • Any Recaller observes an irregularity with a start. 
In addition, not all movements in the “set” position are to be regarded as “commencing the start” and thereby potentially leading to a false start. Such instances should be dealt with either by standing the field up or in serious cases, invoking the disciplinary provisions.
So a couple of things about this clause:

First, the starter and a pair of Recallers are present to watch athletes and make what is basically a judgment call about any irregularities, such as those small movements.  They also have electronic timing equipment, in the form of pressure sensors in the blocks that pick up any movements prior to the gun.  In theory, if an athlete is found to have started (that is, applied pressure to blocks) while in the "set" position, or sooner than 0.100 s after the gun, it is deemed a false start because it is theoretically not possible to REACT this quickly. The equipment, combined with visual judgment, is supposed to detect unusual premature movement.

Importantly, note that it is not necessarily the case that all movements are deemed to lead to a false start - some instances can lead to an aborted start where the field stands up, and if serious, they can lead to disqualification, but it's not necessarily a given that it will be disqualification.

So, returning to the Blake/Bolt incident, that movement, as clear as it was in super slow-motion replays and HD, may not have been deemed sufficient to be called "irregular".  I suspect that such small movements are quite common, though the Blake movement is clear on the replay.  It's a judgment call as to whether it should have constituted, at best, an aborted start where the field stands up.  At worst, it was a false start of its own.  What we can almost certainly surmise that it didn't produce enough of a pressure change on the block to register on the equipment, and it clearly wasn't seen by the officials at the time.  The rest is likely subjective judgment, hence the controversy.

Next: Does this mean Bolt should NOT have been disqualified?

The next thing is that IF you assume that Blake did twitch, is it true that Bolt should not have been disqualified, or were the two false starts independent events?  This is important because again, if you read the rules, you see the following:
In theory, a Starter can award a false start to several athletes if it is indicated that their movement was more or less simultaneous. Otherwise, the false start must go to the athlete indicated as making the first movement (Point 5.3)  
In other words, if there are two false starts, then there is a call to be made about whether they are independent, or whether one influenced the other.  You may recall the case of Sally Pearson and Laura Turner in the Delhi Commonwealth Games last year - here, these two athletes false started 0.001 seconds apart.  Turner was first, and so she was disqualified, but raced under protest.  Pearson was initially not disqualified, but was later DQd on appeal, because it's clear that her false start was independent of Turner's - there's no way you react and produce a start 1/1000th of a second after the "instigator".  So in this case, both athletes were rightly disqualified for what are independent or simultaneous false starts.

So, back to Bolt and Blake...

  • If you believe that Bolt was 'triggered' to jump by Blake's movement, then Bolt should NOT have been disqualified, but Blake should have been.  
  • If you believe that Bolt was unaffected by that movement, then BOTH should have been disqualified.  
  • And if you believe that Blake's movement was too small and not "irregular", then Bolt is the only athlete who should have been disqualified.

A range of scenarios, and ultimately, it comes down to a mix of technicality, but needs a judgment call.  The way I see it, Blake's movement was small and slight enough that it wasn't seen by the recallers and wasn't detected by the equipment.  Therefore, I'd say an aborted start, not a false start is the fairest sanction.  After the fact, that helps nothing, of course.  As for Bolt reacting, he himself hasn't mentioned it, but the argument is that it may be sub-conscious.  In theory, they are close enough that it is possible.  But ultimately, seems a judgment call.  What would yours be?