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When is a false start not a false start?

August 18, 2008

Women’s 100 metresI knew something was up when an official abruptly announced that the women’s 100 metres final news conference had been postponed.

Comments made by the two American sprinters on their way off the track had already rung an alarm bell.

“Man, I swear somebody jumped, someone got out before the gun. I’ve never had a bad start like that, ever,” said Muna Lee, who took fifth place. Torri Edwards, who came at the back of the field, admitted: “I think I moved a bit there at the start, and I thought they would call it. I think I false-started, I moved a little bit — my foot. There was no call back so I went.”

Sure enough, the Americans appealed against the result of the race, in which Jamaica had taken a clean sweep of the medals, claiming there had been a false start.

For 20 tense minutes it looked like the blue riband event of the evening might have to be re-run, until word came through that the International Association of Athletics Federations had rejected the Americans’ appeal.

Why, if even one of the Jamaican medallists said she had noticed the false start, did the appeal fail?

A false start is declared when an athlete moves any part of his or her body prior to the sound of the starting gun while in ’set’ position. For races up to 400 metres, where hundredths of seconds make all the difference, electronic starting blocks are used to detect any pre-gun movement.

If a competitor applies any pressure to the blocks initiating a reaction time of less than 0.1 seconds after the warning gun is fired — in other words so fast that the athlete must have been moving before the gun — a warning sound is sent into the earphone of the chief starter, who has the option of recalling the race and starting again.

The decision not to recall the race on Sunday may have been because Edwards had not applied enough pressure on the blocks to trigger the warning, or because she had applied the pressure after the 0.1 second had elapsed. Or she might have twitched her upper body but left her feet solid.

Although she thought she had false-started, Edwards actually had a reaction time of 0.179 seconds, and that wasn’t the fastest or the slowest of the eight runners.

For the Jamaicans it was all a storm in a teacup.

“I felt the false start,” joint-silver medallist Kerron Stewart said when the news conference finally got underway. ”But the race is over. There’s nowt we can do about it. Jamaica came out on top.”

PHOTO: Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica (R) celebrates winning the women’s 100m final as she crosses the finish line in the National Stadium at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 17, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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