Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the planet. But he is not the reigning world champion in the 100m, the event in which he holds the world record with the only sub-9.6 time in history, because he was just too damn fast for his own good.
After Bolt was disqualified on Sunday from the 100m final at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea for a false-start infraction, the overwhelming message from pundits has been to deride the new regulations on jumping the gun.
In January 2010, seeking to reduce the prevalence of sprinters taking a flyer against the start, the IAAF decided that a single false start would earn the DQ. Before, a sprinter’s first early jump would count against the field, with the second relegating the offender to the sidelines.
The incentive before the rule change was on the athlete to time his break from the blocks to coincide with the pull of the trigger finger. With no penalty for bungling the start, seemingly every heat involved somebody getting ahead of the gun.
It was a common occurrence to see three, four or more guys all racing out of the blocks before time started. A drag on TV broadcasts, the IAAF tightened the rules to curb the trend of trying to anticipate the gun rather than reacting to its first peals.
And now that change, on the second-biggest stage for the sport (after the Olympics), has cost the sport’s preeminent star a chance at another gold medal. Everyone seemed appalled that the organizers would disqualify their greatest superstar. But given the current wording of the rule… how could they not?
It was painfully obvious — to everybody in the stadium in Daegu as well as an international television audience — that it was Bolt who started too early. Bolt knew it. His coaches knew it. And the officials knew it all too well.
Under the old rules, the field would have swallowed the false start and lined back up. Bolt would have received a second chance. But the meet wasn’t being held under the old rules.
Sprinters have known for twenty months that an early jump would be their death sentence in that event. This was not something sprung on them unexpectedly right before everyone converged in Korea.
Many have said that the IAAF should have made an exception in this extraordinary circumstance. But how would that have been fair to the other finalists in the event?
Making exceptions for superstars might appease the media that writes about them. An exception would have allowed fans to see the man who was the marquee headliner. But it would have cheapened the championships to hand out second chances arbitrarily.
Should the IAAF consider returning to its old false-start policy? It seems the most popular option to prevent future instances of this nature. But what’s done is done for Bolt, and all the public clamoring won’t put him back on the line in the 100m this year.
The tumult over the way the false start did play out, though, reeks of favoritism and the cult of the superstar. The question we should all be asking is not whether Usain was jobbed by the rules… because the rules are what they were at the time of his mistake, and the IAAF did the right thing in applying them evenly despite the PR hit they risked taking in doing so.
The real question is one of magnitude. Had it been, say, eventual winner Yohan Blake who had false-started instead of his more heralded compatriot… would we would even be talking about this story in the first place?