When Alan bell, the Geordie chief starter, called for the eight athletes in the World Championship men's 100m final to get to their marks in the Daegu Stadium yesterday, Usain Bolt quit his clowning to the television cameras, sprang up on his toes and yelled: "Let's go." As the world's fastest man levered his long legs into his starting blocks, the 50,000 crowd and the multi-million global television audience got ready for the challenge of the "Lightning Bolt" versus the trackside clock.
Based on the form he had shown in his first-round heat on Saturday, and again in his semi-final earlier yesterday, the question of who might beat Bolt had already been answered: only Bolt himself with a false start. Thus it proved.
When Bell, a former Northumberland and Durham high jump champion, invited the finalists to rise into the "set" position, Bolt did so but then sprang from his blocks before the gun fired. He ripped off his Jamaican vest and looked to the heavens, anticipating his fate before an official arrived in his lane with the red card.
The hushed crowd seemed as stunned as the man from Trelawny Parish himself. Bolt paced around in a daze of fury with himself as Yohan Blake, his Jamaican team-mate and 21-year-old training partner, who missed the 2009 World Championships after testing positive for the banned stimulant methylhexaneamine, sped to an unexpected gold in 9.92sec.
Bolt watched the re-run of the race on the big screen and shook his head in despair. He had arrived in South Korea telling the world he wanted to win another pair of global titles and become a legend. Instead, for the time being at least, the 25-year-old Jamaican phenomenon had become just another leg-end. Like Christine Ohuruogu in the 400m heats on Saturday and Dwain Chambers in the 100m semi-finals yesterday, he was a hapless victim of the false-start rule. The controversial zero tolerance false-start rule, that is.
When the one-strike-and-out regulation was introduced last year by the International Association of Athletics Federations – replacing the old rule that allowed one false start by any of the field – Tyson Gay forecast trouble.
"If Usain Bolt false-started everyone would be upset, wanting him to be let back into the race," the American said at the time. "It would take something like that to happen to be a wake-up call. If that happened at the World Championships next year, without Usain Bolt, the race is going to have an asterisk to the side."
Barely had the asterisk denoting 'Usain Bolt, JAM, DQ' been applied to the result sheet than the sprinting fraternity was calling for change. "I don't think it's the right rule," bronze medallist Kim Collins said. "You've got to give people a chance.
"I think if you give the field at least one false start, it would be a better rule. But the athletes don't make the rules. I am hoping the IAAF will think what is going on and see how the false-start rule is affecting the sport and see the pros and cons of changing it."
Asked whether the governing body would consider changing the rule, Nick Davies, the IAAF's director of communications, said: "It's always possible. The council has the power to change rules and meets two or three times a year, the next being here on Sunday.
"In extraordinary cases, the IAAF council has the right to make interim changes to technical rules, pending official approval by IAAF Congress. There's no doubt it will be on the table, but this is not showbusiness. We are not here to make a star performer perform.
"You don't start changing things because it's a certain athlete. We are very disappointed with Usain Bolt false-starting but the rules are the rules. They are the same for every athlete and we have to apply them.
"It's important to maintain the integrity and credibility of the sport and it's based on rules. He will be back in the 200m and 4x100m and he would be the first to admit he did false start. It was blatant."
As Bolt left to lick his wounds, he was not seeking sympathy. "Looking for tears?" he enquired of the press pack following in his wake. "Not going to happen. I'm okay. I have nothing to say right now. I need some time."
Bolt will be back for the 200m heats on Friday. "I think he's going to put his '09 face on and go to war," the injured Gay, an interested spectator, said. Whether the "Lightning Bolt" can strike back and break the world record he set at the longer event in Berlin in 2009 – 19.19sec – remains to be seen.
Letter of the law
Rule 162.7, stipulating the instant disqualification of any sprinter commencing his start before the report of the starting gun, was introduced by the world governing body of track and field – the International Association of Track and Field Associations – last summer.
"Many athletes were playing mind games with the others but under the new rules that will not be possible," Jorge Salcedo, head of the IAAF's technical commission, said. Under the old regulations, one false start was permitted, from any of the field, before all athletes were warned that the next discretion would lead to immediate disqualification. Prior to that, pre 2003, disqualification occurred only after the same athlete false-started twice.Reuse content