Researchers show track’s false-start rule is too strict

Bahamian sprinter Michael Mathieu ended up being a footnote to Jamaica's historic men's 200-metre dash sweep, for all the wrong reasons.

The International Association of Athletics Federation's 'one and done' false-start rule was under heavy scrutiny before London 2012 after it resulted in Usain Bolt being disqualified in the 100 at the 2011 world championships. Bolt acknowledged that he "sat in the blocks" during last Sunday's men's before winning in an Olympic-record 9.63 seconds.

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International athletics pooh-bahs might think that getting through the track portion of London 2012 without a star being disqualified validates the new rule and shows performers have adapted. Turkey's Nagihan Karidere, in the women's 400, was the first Olympian disqualified under the new rule. On Thursday, Mathieu, a relay medallist in Beijing, was DQ'd in from his semifinal heat. Jamaica's Warren Weir won it and went on to take bronze.

Why is this relevant a day later? It turns out the criteria for what constitutes a false start might not be scientifically sound.

From Jessica Smith:

Research underway at the University of Ottawa has found the Olympic rules for false starts may be too strict and penalize runners who aren't aiming to cheat, but are simply startled by the starter's gun.

"The IAAF rules state that if you react in less than 100 milliseconds after the gun, it's considered a false start," said researcher Tony Carlsen on Tuesday. "What we see using our loud stimuli is that if it's loud enough that you can cause a startled reaction at the same time, people react in less than 100 milliseconds sometimes — that would get people disqualified."

Changing the false start threshold to 50 milliseconds after the gun would eliminate the problem, because the fastest reactions times his team have encountered are more than 60 milliseconds, he said.

Carlsen's team found people react to a sudden sound either voluntarily or involuntarily, using different neural pathways. The involuntary, or "startled," reaction is quicker. (Metro Ottawa)

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It's probably too speculative by half to wonder if a more forgiving false-start threshold might have allowed Bolt to burst out from the blocks and perhaps challenge his world records. That does raise a question: if the rule makes athletes more cautious about their starts because a startled reaction could make them react too quickly, could it hurt the chances of seeing sprinters lower the world marks? There's a much different rush when you hear the TV commentator yell out the exuberant redundancy, "a new world record!" The 'one and done' rule is likely in athletics to stay, but what constitutes a false start should be based on hard science as much as possible.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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