Alan Bell: The man with the golden gun gets set for Bolt reunion
The starter who disqualified the Jamaican at the World Championship is back on the trigger for the Olympic sprint final. Simon Turnbull meets Alan Bell ahead of another explosive encounter
You may not know the name Alan Bell but you will remember him. In fact, if your name is Usain Bolt you will struggle to forget him.
Bell was the starter who disqualified the Jamaican at last year's World Championship, and whose fingers will again be on the trigger when the gun fires for the 100 and 200 metres finals at London 2012. Pressure? Well just a bit.
The 61-year-old is acknowledged as the world's leading starter but appreciates the dangers of upstaging the world's most famous athletes. He leans back on a chair in the living room of his house on the outskirts of Carlisle and sighs wistfully. "Well, it's quite strange," he says. "I've become infamous because of that one incident. And, as an official, anywhere that you're working in the world you actually want to be anonymous. You don't enjoy any disqualification because you're in a situation where the athlete has worked hard to be on the track that day."
The hard graft the reigning Olympic 100m champion and world- record holder put in before the World Championship in Daegu last August was clear to see in the recent BBC1 documentary – Usain Bolt: The Fastest Man Alive. So was his sheer despair when he false-started in the 100m final.
Tellingly, Bolt was raging at his own stupidity in trying to beat the gun rather than at the one-strike-and-out false-start rule that prompted so much controversy after his disqualification.
"I've reflected a lot on Daegu," says Bell, "and thought, 'Well, one, we had no choice; and, two, he really did make a bad job of it. It wasn't even marginal'. I've looked at it a lot on television, as many people have, and I just wonder whether he just had a lapse in concentration. I suppose only he knows.
"Like a lot of people, I just hope Usain Bolt and all the other top sprinters come to London and they're all at the peak of their form and we have one hell of a race."
In the wake of Bolt's Daegu DQ, the International Association of Athletics Federations declined to reconsider the one-strike rule (which replaced the old regulation that allowed one false start from anyone in the field before an automatic disqualification was enforced). Bolt himself said he was in favour of it. But others are not so sure. Michael Johnson, the 400m world-record holder, last week described the rule as "one of the IAAF's not smart decisions".
As for Bell, the man with the golden gun, he says: "I think there are two things that have to be borne in mind. The first is that the rule is universal, so it's irrelevant of personality. What happened in the 100m in Daegu was high profile because of who was involved.
"The second is that it was not long after the rule had been amended. The athletes generally around the world – and I'm fortunate that I do get to start around the world – have adjusted to it very well, I think.
"The discipline on the start line now among the top sprinters is actually quite exceptional. The job of the starter is no easier but it's probably more consistent. I think also it has made it easier for television to schedule and time live performances.
"And I suppose the last thing is that it has cut out what we would call gamesmanship and chancers. Everybody focuses on the red card for a false start but we can also now officially warn an athlete – for example for delaying a start, or for being deliberately obstructive by not following the instructions. Now, that's not a technical warning. That's actually a conduct warning. But if you get two of those you're out just the same.
"The athletes not only now have to concentrate on a good start, they have to concentrate on their conduct at the start too. So the whole package, I think, is now as good as it's going to get. As time goes on, more and more people are getting used to it. My own view is it's here to stay."
In London, Bell, the chief starter, and the rest of his team will be supported by a sophisticated electronic system. "You get print-outs that show you the reaction time," he says. "You get signals to show you if there's movement before the gun. You get a signal to tell you if there's movement before 0.1sec after the gun, which is the legal reaction time.
"You can also immediately reproduce a wave form to show when the athletes increase the pressure on the blocks, so you can differentiate between a twitch, where they might be settling or uncomfortable, as opposed to formally commencing their forward motion."
Bell has been in the starting game for 36 years now, since an Achilles tendon curtailed his high-jump career and his club, North Shields Polytechnic, asked him to help out on the officiating side.
He hails from Chester-le-Street and works for the Youth Sport Trust. His job title is international development co-ordinator but he is heavily involved in a domestic programme called Young Officials, which is seeking to recruit 10,000 young officials as part of the Olympic legacy.
"So many young people are interested in sport but realise quite early that they're not going to be a performer," Bell says. "There's an outlet there for them to become club secretaries or coaches or officials."
One day they might even find themselves getting ready for an Olympic final, and a reacquaintance with the word's fastest man.
"No, I haven't see Usain Bolt since Daegu," Bell says. "The funny thing was I did see his parents out there after the 100m final. I was walking back to the stand to meet my partner, and I found her sitting next to Usain's mum and dad.
"I'd met them before and I saw Mrs Bolt come walking towards me and I was a bit apprehensive, because obviously she would be upset. She just said, 'He's a silly boy.' And I thought to myself, 'Well, there's one hell of a level-headed woman, who's also very gracious'.
"It brought home to me what well-rounded people they are and why Usain is as he is. He's a solid bloke. There is a lot of showmanship but his feet are firmly on the floor." Until they come out of the start blocks, that is.
Pole vault: Yelena fears after she finishes last
Yelena Isinbayeva might still be regarded as the queen of the pole vault but the regal Russian is heading to London worried about losing the Olympic crown she has held since 2004. Just when her comeback was gathering momentum, the world-record holder came crashing down to earth with a sobering bump in the Diamond League meeting in Monaco on Friday night.
Unbeaten in six competitions indoors and out in 2012, winning the world indoor title and setting a new world indoor record along the way, Isinbayeva suffered a self-inflicted defeat and a jolt to her confidence less than a week away from the start of London 2012. Sitting out the competition until the bar was raised to 4.70m, the 30-year-old suffered three failures and finished bottom of the order – in which Britain's Holly Bleasdale finished third with 4.62m – without registering a height.
It was a haunting echo of the World Championship final in Berlin in 2009, when Isinbayeva again failed to make a mark on the score-sheet. It had taken her until this year – and an extended break – to fully overcome that setback, raising her world indoor record to 5.01 in Stockholm in February and winning the world indoor title in Istanbul.
Having delayed her start to the outdoor season until the week before last, though, it seems she may have undercooked her Olympic preparations. "I don't know exactly what went wrong," Isinbayeva said. "I am physically and mentally ready for the Olympics, but as a human being I worry like any other competitor."
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