7:02 PM EDT, August 28, 2011
If you asked fans at any NFL pre-season game or major league baseball game this weekend to name one track and field star, chances are that nearly everyone who answered would have said, "Usain Bolt" or "that fast Jamaican guy."
With his flashy speed and theatrical gestures, the Jamaican sprinter had deeply penetrated the sports world's consciousness since winning three gold medals, all in world-record times, at the 2008 Olympics. Bolt is bigger than track and field, exactly the outsized figure the sport needs in an era when it occupies a diminished place among the games people follow.
Bolt gave the world a show before the final of the 100 meters at the World Championships Sunday in Daegu, South Korea, making playful "no way" signs to the runners on either side of him and emphasizing he was the man to watch.
And then, just as Bolt was beginning the real show, he got the hook in track and field's version of the Gong Show.
That left the world to watch a 100 final as laughably absurd without Bolt as as some of the acts on that old daytime TV show.
It isn't Bolt but the officials responsible for the controversial rule that gonged him who need to get their act together, lest a similar fiasco occur at next year's Olympics, as astute observers like NBC commentator Ato Boldon have feared would happen.
The rules on the Gong Show made more sense from an entertainment standpoint than the two-year-old false start rule that led to Bolt's disqualification in the first global championship when the rule applied.
Yes, rules are rules, and Bolt was well aware of this one: one false start, and you're out.
And there was no doubt he beat the gun, as the video shows (click here.)
"While the (international track federation) is, of course, disappointed that Usain Bolt false-started in the final of the 100m, it is important to remember that a sport’s credibility depends on its rules, and they must also be applied consistently and fairly for ALL athletes," the federation said in the account of the race on its web site.
In fact, the only good thing one can say about what happened in the world 100-meter final is the federation did not protect Bolt by coming up with some reason for keeping him in the field.
"I didn't think they would kick him out," said Walter Dix of the U.S., the eventual silver medalist. "They have him on every (promotional) poster."
But the issue is not enforcement.
It's the rule, in effect the past two seasons.
Its impact was exactly the opposite of its intent, to produce a more dramatically intense show for television and live spectators.
How happy do you think worldwide broadcasters were about a 100 meters without Bolt, the sport's only current global superstar? Think the race lost a little luster, especially on a night when a headwind produced a pedestrian winning time of 9.92 seconds by Yohan Blake of Jamaica, whose achievement always will bear an unofficial asterisk:
*Won after Usain Bolt was disqualified for a false start.
"As much as I want to be on the podium, tonight is a sad night for athletics," said bronze medalist Kim Collins of St. Kitts & Nevis.
Under the previous rule for distances through the 400 meters, the field was allowed one false start. Any athlete false starting after that was disqualified.
Theoretically, there could have been seven false starts in an eight-runner field (one would hope the last runner left wouldn't jump the gun). Even one false start could lead to a time-consuming stoppage of action, throwing race schedules out of whack while the runners came back to the blocks and readied themselves to start again.
But the false start also built tension, and instances of multiple false starts were not common in major championships, seeming to happen most often in the high hurdles.
David Oliver of the United States, one of the favorites in the high hurdles, reacted to Bolt's DQ by tweeting: "For the record I'm still a fan of one false start and out, but I always felt a provision should be made for championships."
International track officials claimed the rule needed to be changed because athletes were using the false start as a strategic measure to play mind games with opponents. That may have been true, but the real reason behind the change was that in a world of split-second attention spans, track and field's leaders thought such delays were among the things contributing to lower interest in their sport.
So they changed the rule to one-false-start-and-you're out, hoping the draconian nature of the punishment would be enough to make athletes disinclined to risk a false start. Swimming long has had a similar rule, but swimming's shortest race, the 50-meter freestyle, lasts twice as long as the 100 in track, making the risk / reward for cutting it close much less significant.
(And who cares about the world records in swimming, anyway? It's the 100 record in track that comes with the fastest-on-earth title.)
In track, a reaction time faster than one-tenth of as second, measured electronically from when the runner releases pressure on the blocks, is considered a false start. To break a world record in the 100 or the 200 meters, most runners need to push the reaction time envelope.
Bolt, a notoriously slow starter, had by far the fastest reaction time in the field when he clocked an otherworldly 19.19 seconds into a slight headwind for the 200 meters at the 2009 world meet, breaking his own world record by a stunning 11/100ths of a second.
What does that mean?
A major part of sprinting's spectator appeal, especially in major championships, especially in the 100, is the chance you might see a world record.
Bolt already put the 100 and 200 world records into a new zone, as Michael Johnson had done with the 200 record, which lasted 12 years until Bolt broke it the first time. The one false start rule will make it nearly impossible for anyone to challenge Bolt's marks.
"I kept sitting in the blocks, and I couldn't move," Dix said, explaining his poor first 30 meters in the semifinal and final. "That false start (rule) was killing us, and hopefully it will change by London (the 2012 Olympics.)"
If not, the public may give track and field the hook.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC