Column: Bolt is human, his sport's rules are not
DAEGU, South Korea (AP) — Usain Bolt showed he is human. His sport showed its rules are not.
The zero-tolerance false start regulation that threw the world's fastest man out of the banner 100-meter sprint that he owns isn't just silly, it's cruel.
Nerves. Tension. Pumping adrenaline. The rule makes no allowance for those human reactions to stress, for honest mistakes. Jump the starter's gun, just once, and you're out.
That's what happened to Bolt on Sunday on one of the biggest stages of them all, the world championships, and now his sport will have to pay the bill. Disqualifying its biggest name, a runner so mesmerizing for fans that he can command appearance fees of $300,000 per race — talk about athletics shooting itself in the foot.
"Its a crazy rule," said Olivia Grange, the minister for sport from Bolt's native Jamaica who watched, along with everyone else at the Daegu Stadium, in utter disbelief. "The message has been sent that they need to revisit this ruling," she told me.
One of track and field's senior leaders, Sergei Bubka, agreed that his federation needs to take another look. He told me he thought "My God! My God!" when Bolt sprang out of his blocks a fraction of a second too early.
"This is really ridiculous. I don't know what to say," the IAAF vice president said. As a former pole vaulter who still holds the world record, Bubka has first-hand knowledge of how the stress of competition can cause unexpected outcomes.
"He's always so perfect and suddenly ... ," he said, referring to Bolt.
The IAAF wasn't always this intolerant. Until 2003, the rule was that every runner got a second chance. The drawbacks were multiple false starts that deflated races before they had begun and unhappy television broadcasters whose schedules were thrown off-kilter by repeated delays.
So it was tightened to allow just one false start per race in sprint events. But that, too, had drawbacks: sluggish starters were suspected of deliberately jumping the gun, knowing that it might make the field more cautious and likely to get away more slowly on the restart, because the next runner to go too early would be disqualified.
"It was a lot of tricks, a lot of manipulation," Bubka said. "To create additional psychological pressure."
In January 2010, the IAAF went overboard, tightening the rule to its current extreme. Support was far from unanimous: IAAF members voted 97-55 in favor.
"If we did some mistake, we should come back," Bubka said. "I'm very open, if necessary, to discuss and look (at the rule). I think in any case, what has happened, it brings us to discussion, to look ... is it right or not?"
Answer, Mr. Bubka: It's not right. Athletes — although perhaps not always Bolt, who has so much talent that he doesn't need to work as hard as he could — sweat blood and tears to reach world championships. And for one twitch too early, all that time, effort and money should go down the drain?
"We came a long way to see him run," Bolt's dad, Wellesley, who really doesn't like long flights, told me. "I don't agree with the rules, but they lay down the rule and what can I say?"
It might be tempting, although probably wrong, to think that Bolt perhaps made the error of not taking the final seriously enough. He cruised through two earlier rounds without reaching top gear. His main rivals, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, were absent, injured. He seemed a sure bet to retain the 100 title he won in 2009 in a world record 9.58 seconds.
Bolt, as always, clowned around before Sunday's start, preening his new goatee beard, pointing to his family and friends in the crowd in their canary-yellow Jamaica shirts. But that's what Bolt does. His super-cool, fun-loving demeanor of a champion who has not grown too big for his boots is part of his attraction.
Does it mean Bolt didn't have his head on straight when he crouched into the blocks? We can't be sure. He wouldn't talk afterward, barking, "Don't! Don't!" at a reporter who had the gumption to pose a question to the fuming giant.
But his agent, Ricky Simms, noted that Bolt rarely has false starts and poo-pooed the idea that his runner may have been guilty of overconfidence.
"Come on. Usain has been doing this for many years. You know how he is," he said. "The sad thing is he was looking so good through the rounds and we were very confident that he was going to perform very, very well."
To his credit, Bolt climbed right back on the horse that bucked him. From the stadium where Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake won the title that Bolt vacated, he walked to a nearby warmup track and, cutting a solitary figure in the dark, practiced sprinting alone from a standing start.
If there is a silver lining, it could be that Bolt is now more unlikely than to repeat his error next year at the London Olympics or later this week when he races in his favorite event, the 200, where he also holds the world record.
"He'll recover. He's the type of person who doesn't give up" his dad said. "He'll learn from the mistake."
Now, the IAAF must, too. Otherwise, imagine if there's a repeat at the Olympics when the entire world will be watching. For track and field, what could be worse? Perhaps only Bolt testing positive for something could do more to hurt the sport.
"I'm just numb right now. It's crazy. People get a little nervy," his manager, Norman Peart, said. "That false-start rule, it's going to screw us all up."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester