Social Science blog

07 September 2011

Rules

The gasp of shock and disappointment that greeted Usain Bolt’s disqualification from the 100m final at the IAAF world cup just over a week ago was probably reproduced in just about every athletics-loving household in the world. One moment we were eagerly awaiting the sight of Bolt storming to the finish, and the next we were seeing him disappearing in the direction of the dressing rooms. How could this possibly have happened? For British fans there was the added disappointment of seeing Dwayne Chambers and Christine Ohuruogu disqualified for exactly the same reason – getting a ‘flyer’.

Under current regulations it’s easily done. One twitch, one unintended reaction at the starting blocks, and that’s it. You get no second chance (as used to be the case) and no one is exempt. What happens next inevitably comes as a dreadful anticlimax to the audience, although not, in this instance, for Bolt’s training partner Yohan Blake who won the race in a fabulous 9.9 seconds. Bolt himself had no complaints to make. He had made a mistake and he accepted it immediately.

To the IAAF’s credit it made no bones about the fact that it might have got it wrong, and said it would reconsider ‘the one strike and you’re out’ rule, which came into effect on 1 January 2010. Sebastian Coe is reported to have said that the rules should not be reversed, but one wonders if a long distance athlete could conceivably share the perspective of the speed merchants themselves. Who but they know what it means to be delicately poised at the start of a hundred metre race where fractions of a second count, super alert to the slightest sound or movement that will light the blue touch paper, and twitching in both mind and body.

So we are left with something of a dilemma. Do we suffer the sometimes endless succession of false starts that occurred under the old system or do we risk a big disappointment (and perhaps penalise someone who didn’t actually mean to do it)? To me, the old system of ‘two strikes and you’re out’ made sense. If someone made a false start under these rules, his break was noted and he made absolutely sure he didn’t make the same mistake next time, to the extent that he’d be extra cautious at the replay - which was punishment of a sort. In return for this, the excited audience would stand a good chance of seeing the super stars run, with little fear of an agonising disappointment. Does it really need saying that nowadays you have to bear the audience in mind when you consider these things? Cricket umpires are increasingly being put on the defensive about their rulings on playing in poor light, and there is a growing consciousness that the paying public have a right to their money’s worth. But how to accommodate this with the structure imposed by The Rules?

 Clearly we need them: the rules that is. But when do they cross the line between being useful and being counter-productive? So interesting to see what happens next!

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