The False Start Rule: History and Controversies

Usain Bolt reacts to False Start
Alexander Hassenstein / Staff / Getty Images

The 2011 World Championships marked the first major outdoor event that employed the new “one-and-done” false start rule: one false start committed by any runner at any time eliminated that runner from the competition. The worst case scenario then occurred, as world record-holder Usain Bolt false-started in the 100-meter final and was disqualified.

False Start History

For most of track’s history, runners received a warning after one false start, then were disqualified for jumping the gun a second time.

In the hope of keeping track meets moving along, without the threat of multiple false starts in the sprints, the IAAF Congress changed the rule in 2001, permitting one false start per race in events of 400 meters of less. The first false start by any runner was charged to the field. Any subsequent false starts resulted in disqualification. The rule went into effect on Jan. 1, 2003.

During the next few years, however, it appeared that some slower starting runners were intentionally false-starting to put pressure on sprinters who were generally faster out of the blocks. As a result, IAAF changed the rule again in 2009. Except in multi-events competition, all false starts would now result in immediate disqualification. Bolt was among those who supported the new rule publicly. So when he false-started in Daegu, he offered no complaints or excuses, though some felt that Yohan Blake – the eventual gold medalist – had twitched in the starting blocks before the gun, possibly causing Bolt to depart early.

Bolt’s false start was far from the first to generate controversy. At the 1996 Olympics – where one false start was still allowed to each runner – defending 100-meter champion Linford Christie of Great Britain was charged with two false starts and was disqualified. Christie clearly false-started before the first gun. Ato Bolden of Trinidad and Tobago then false-started before the second gun. Christie was charged again at the third gun, but it was a much closer call than the original false start. A disbelieving Christie at first refused to leave the track and removed the red disc from Lane 2 that announced his disqualification. You can check out a YouTube video of the event (if you want to skip the preliminaries, the runners first take their marks just past the 4-minute point of the 11-minute video).

False Start Detection

Since the ‘70s, false starts in major meets have been determined electronically, with ever more sophisticated sensors, and based on research showing that no human can react in less than a tenth of a second. So if the timing shows that a runner begins moving out of the blocks in less than one-tenth of a second, the runner is charged with a false start. This aspect of the false start rule caused a major disruption at the 2003 World Championships.

Jon Drummond was charged with false-starting in a 100-meter quarterfinal after the sensors showed that he reacted in about six-one hundredths of a second. Because a false start had already been charged to the field, he was disqualified. Drummond argued with officials, then staged a sit-in, lying down on the track, repeating “I didn’t move” to anyone who’d listen. Despite the electronic evidence, he may have had a point; to the naked eye (look for Drummond in Lane 4 of the video) he doesn’t even appear to be the first off the starting line. Indeed, the crowd, after initially jeering as Drummond delayed the race, began cheering him when the replay was shown on the stadium’s screen. In the end, Drummond and Asafa Powell – who also moved in less than a tenth of a second – were disqualified. Coincidentally, it was Bolden who won the heat but not before Drummond’s protest had delayed the race by about 50 minutes.

Olympic Agony

There can also be trouble even when nobody false starts.

In the 2000 Olympics, John Capel probably lost a medal because his false start wasn’t called. Capel won all three of his preliminary 200-meter races in the Sydney Games. He had the fastest quarterfinal and semifinal times, winning his semi in 20.10 seconds. Never a strong starter, Capel flinched and anticipated a false start call in the final. He was unprepared when, instead, the starting gun sounded. He was too slow out of the blocks and couldn’t catch up, as Konstantinos Kenteris won the gold in 20.09 seconds. Darren Campbell (20.14) won the silver, while the ever-present Boldon gained the bronze medal in 20.20. Check out the video, with Capel in Lane 4.

False Starts Diminish

While defending the current zero-tolerance false start rule, IAAF officials released a study of false starts from three major meets preceding Daegu. The IAAF noted that there were 26 false starts at the 2007 World Championships, 33 at the 2008 Olympics and 25 at the 2009 World Championships, all under the previous rule. With zero tolerance in place, only 10 false starts were committed at the 2011 World Championships.

Interestingly, men have been overwhelmingly more likely to false start than women. In the 2007 World Championships, 18 men false started, to only eight women. In Beijing the ratio of men to women was 26-7; in Berlin, it was 18-7. Six of the 10 false starts in Daegu were committed by men.