High-tech starting system triggers Greek tragedy

Electronic gadgetry has got away to a false start, says Mike Rowbottom
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If Tony Jarrett's post-race performance on Saturday was probably the most sporting of these Championships, one of the most determined came from Peter Whitehead, Britain's unheralded marathon runner who missed out on a medal by one position after playing a major part in a race run in punishingly high temperatures.

Whitehead, who took off for Albuquerque last November - funded by his wife and mother - in order to train at altitude, has assured himself of another American trip now. His top five finish here will earn him early selection for next year's Olympics.

Jarrett, who must have thought his golden moment had come in the 110m hurdles after the years of silver and bronze, was his usual affable self after being denied by Allen Johnson, of the United States.

"I remember seeing Allen train in California four years ago," he recalled with a grin. "I would never have believed then that he would have whipped my butt at the World Championships."

It may have been some small consolation to him that his time of 13.04sec was faster than that managed by the 1993 champion Colin Jackson - not fit in time for the British selection deadline, but fit now - in Baden, Switzerland, on Saturday, namely 13.17sec.

The Greek sprinter disqualified for two false starts in the 200 metres first round provided the most dramatic demonstration of frustration at these Championships afterwards.

Shouting out loud what Greek observers confirmed as a swear word, he hurled his shoes the length of the mixed zone where the athletes change and emptied his kit bag over the floor. Then he broke down in tears. Then he rallied, and answered a few questions from journalists, before seeing the red mist again, wrenching the tape recorder from his interlocutor's hands and sending it in the direction of his shoes.

Not every athlete has been brought to that pitch of emotion by the newly upgraded Seiko starting system. But it has caused - or contributed to - feelings of frustration both from the spectators and the competitors. It has got to the point where, if any event requiring blocks gets off to a clean start, it it almost a surprise.

John Regis, who was involved in the fateful 200 metres heat, complained that he could not concentrate properly because he felt he had to keep holding back in the blocks.

Jarrett, who was charged with one false start before his final, maintained steadfastly afterwards that it had not bothered him. Indeed, he recorded the fastest reaction time when the field got underway. But he did complain that the system was "too technical", a charge which that experienced competitor Roger Kingdom, double Olympic champion, also made.

Kingdom complained that starters were going along the line pushing athletes' feet back on to the pressure pads when they would not normally make contact until the athletes rose into the "set" position.

Undoubtedly some of the problems here have not been technical. False starts in the 5,000 metres, and even the women's 1500m final, were down to human discretion only.

When Seiko announced at the beginning of these Championships that they had renewed their four-year contract with the International Amateur Athletic Federation for another four years, they proudly displayed an upgraded system which had been developed in consultation with several sports bodies.

There has been an increase in the sensitivity of the pressure pads on the blocks. Whereas beforehand they reacted to a strong movement of an athletes's foot, now pressure changes are continually measured.

There is also, in Seiko's words, "visible and user-friendly data output in the form of a wave-form graph available at track-side for starters." These show clearly the sudden rise as athletes leave the blocks in relation to the moment the electronically created sound of the gun goes off.

It is a system which is fairer than ever before to athletes in one way, as there can be no "fliers" any more. And if any athlete uses the old tactic of twitching in his blocks to trigger a rival into a false start, their initial movement is recorded and the false start goes to them. No hiding place.

Several experienced observers believe that athletes have grown used to the rules over shifting in the blocks being a little more free and easy on the grand prix circuit.

Brian Broad, from Seiko's technical department, agreed with this view. "It is mainly a matter of educating the athletes," he said. "There is nothing wrong with the system. It has just been designed to give additional information. Within six months people will be wondering what all the fuss was about."

There will, nevertheless, be an analysis of the system after these Championships, and some modification has not been ruled out.

For Paula Radcliffe, beaten into fifth place in the 5,000 metres as Sonia O'Sullivan took the gold for Ireland, the initial reaction was to cry. But as she comforted her friend from junior days, Gabriela Szabo, who was also overwhelmed by the speed of the last lap, she was able to reflect more calmly upon her performance.

"We are both learning the 5,000 metres," she said. "We are learning the hard way."