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The perfect start

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Tom Fordyce | 16:08 UK time, Friday, 2 September 2011

With Usain Bolt sensationally disqualified from the 100m final and Britain's Dwain Chambers and Christine Ohuruogu among several other high-profile names to be red-carded after jumping the gun, these Worlds have been dubbed 'the false-start championships' by some here in South Korea.

While hardly the catchiest of monikers, it reflects the fact that all the talk around the sprint events has been of the action on the blocks, rather than at the finish line.

So how to produce the perfect sprint start? How to handle the tension of a world final, the clanging nerves, the chest-thumping rivals looking to mess with your mind?

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Seeking answers before Bolt's 200m final on Saturday evening, I took a stroll with Darren Campbell - Olympic 200m silver medallist, world bronze medallist in 2003 and European 100m champion 13 years ago.

"First, the myth: there is no such thing as the ideal start," says Campbell, in Daegu as an expert summariser for BBC Radio 5 live.

"You have to find what works for you as an athlete, and what matches the strengths of your body.

"Usain Bolt has a very long stride for a sprinter. That helps him when he's into his running, but creates a problem at the start when he can't get his legs out. So he has to find the best way to get his legs out from that very compact crouch position.

"That means he tries to keep as compact as he can and minimise the amount of rocking or movement from side to side. Once he has created that initial momentum then he can access his real strength, which is the length of his stride.

"Usain has to be relaxed to make that work, which is why he messes about on the blocks. Maurice Greene was the complete opposite.

"When Greene was on the blocks there was always a tremendous amount of tension through his whole body. That was because he used power to get out of the blocks. It was the polar opposite to Bolt, but those completely different approaches work the same way for them."

The big problems, and how to deal with them

"Maurice used to walk round the call-room, staring out all the other sprinters," remembers Campbell.

"You'd all be sitting down, and he would stand in front of you until you looked up and then flex his muscles until you looked away. If you didn't look up he'd start making this grunting noise until you did.

"Linford Christie knew that his mental advantage was that he was in better physical shape than anyone else. His physique was what could intimidate people.

"So he would walk round the warm-up track with his top off, so everyone could see how good he looked. There was nowhere to hide, so everyone had to watch him."

Linford Christie, disqualified 1996

Linford Christie was disqualified in the 1996 Olympics 100m final for two false starts. Photo: Getty

How does a sprinter deal with such alpha-male displays of aggression from his stellar arrivals?

"What I would do at certain times was lie on the track and look up at the sky, so I wasn't seeing what Maurice Greene and the rest were doing," says Campbell.

"If you're feeling intimidated, you're not focused. So you need to find out what helps you focus, and to break free of the others' antics."

Before most big sprint finals, the thousands of spectators are asked by the stadium announcer to be as quiet as they can.

It doesn't always work. Excitement triggers whoops and screams. In Daegu, the acoustics round the 400m starts have reportedly made it harder for the athletes in lanes four to six to hear the starter's instructions. So how does someone like Bolt deal with the distractions of noise?

"There are some stadiums and countries where the crowd don't appreciate what they're watching or what they should and shouldn't do, so they might be clapping a field event when you're settling on your blocks," says Campbell.

"That's where you hope the starter will step in and tell you to stand up.

"In a World or Olympic final all your senses are all heightened, including your hearing. The only way you can deal with it is to get in the zone, as Linford used to say.

"That means you'll be in the subconscious, just reacting without thought to the gun. If you're conscious mind is dominant you'll be aware of too many things, telling yourself REACT REACT REACT and so much less likely to do everything else you have to do."

The finals without disqualified Usain Bolt

Some fear that a similar Bolt disqualification at London 2012 could scar memories of the Games. Photo: Getty

Bolt's false-start in the 100m was blamed by some on a twitch from the man in the lane outside him, his training partner Yohan Blake.

How easy is it to be triggered from your blocks by the tiniest movement from the athlete outside you?

"It's the hardest thing of all to deal with," says Campbell. "When you're up in the 'set' position, you're ready to explode."

He demonstrates by playing a game of the old playground favourite Slapsies, when you place your closed palms against the fingertips of your opponent and attempt to slap their hands before they can react.

A slap represents a great start from the blocks, a flinch in response to an opponent's dummy a false-start after a twitch.

"When you're primed to react, it only takes the slightest hint of movement to make you jump."

Two sore hands later, I understand his point clearly. But what of the effect of the starters themselves? They're the ones who determine when the athletes should go to their blocks, how quickly they should settle and how long to hold them in the 'set' position.

"When you're running at club level you can watch particular starters in action and work out how they like to do it, how long they're likely to keep you at 'set'.

"Even when you start doing the international circuit you can get familiar with the protocols they use in different countries - for example, in France they quite like a short 'set-BANG' rhythm, so you could actually anticipate it.

"The more important the race, the more important a good starter. The best one in the world is the Geordie Alan Bell. All sprinters know that a race started by Alan or anyone trained up by him will be a well-handled race."

In Bolt's 200m heats he had a slower reaction time from his blocks than all but one of his 53 rivals. Was this a result of his 100m disaster, the possibility of a second false-start too ghastly to risk?

"Tension can affect you in different ways," believes Campbell.

"It will generally have the biggest effect on the person who needs the biggest start. It will tighten the muscles, and when your muscles are tight they don't function to their optimum. Yet perversely you can become most tense if you're worried about your start.

"Tension can sometimes help. In those cases it's not stress tension, or an adverse tension, but something that allows you to react - an athletic poised, the definition of being ready.

"You never want to be under-relaxed, and you never want to be over-relaxed. That's vital."

The most important thing of all?

"Do not go to your blocks with any negativity.

"Negativity will create all manner of problems. Clear your mind, focus on what you need to do and believe."


  • Comment number 1.

    Hey I got first! Come on England tonight!

  • Comment number 2.

    it is a ridiculous and unnecessary rule..By my understanding, it was brought it because there were too many false starts which were taking up too much time. The major sprint events are the blockbuster events people come to see..Surely they can make time for a few minor delays..Bring in the old rule of allowing one false start and then create a maximum number of times a race can be restarted,,i dunno, lets say 4?

  • Comment number 3.

    BOLT, the legend

  • Comment number 4.

    I've got an idea for solving this problem but I don't know where to go for someone to listen? I't's so simple I can't believe no one has thought of it yet.

  • Comment number 5.

    Kale - whats that?

    The way i see it is that if the false start rule was brought in for the TV companies then that is wrong.

    If it is to prevent "cheating" or gamesmanship then its a good rule.

  • Comment number 6.

    Yesterday, Darren Chambers paid lame tribute to Florence Joyner-Kersee, pointedly ignoring the comments by his colleagues about her highly likely drugs use (the point was made that she never failed a drugs test....but neither did Marion Jones.)

    Chambers went on about the 'power' she brought to the event, urged people to look on Youtube to see how good she was. He ignored the points that her times dramatically improved in mid-career and that no-one has come near her records since and instead went on about how she would have made the semi-final in the mens event at the British Championships.

    After that....I have no faith in ANYTHING Darren Chambers says.

    As for the article...perfectly good rule change, anyone else noticed that there have been far fewer false starts in the last 3 days as athletes have adapted?

  • Comment number 7.

    Wow a quality piece of reporting this. Slaps is like starting a 100m sprint. I'm glad my license fee is well spent on enlightening journalism like this. Darren please slap Tom a few times around the head will you?

  • Comment number 8.

    @6. Rob

    At least try and get their names correct if you are going to comment. Surely you mean Florence Griffith-Joyner, not Florence Joyner-Kersee?... and who's Darren Chambers?

  • Comment number 9.

    Wow a quality piece of reporting this. Slaps is like starting a 100m sprint. I'm glad my license fee is well spent on enlightening journalism like this. Darren please slap Tom a few times around the head will you?


    Did you even read it? He said Campbell demonstrated it via the game. Maybe you should spend more time fine-tuning your reading skills and not criticising a blameless journalist?

  • Comment number 10.

    Did no 7 even read this article? Slap game was initiated by the sprinter whom I thought illustrated the issue very well with this analogy. Good article Tom.

  • Comment number 11.

    Did no 7 even read this article?

    No, in his attempt to be superior he has made himself look like a bit of a plank. We´ll see if he has the decency to actually apologise to the journalist ....

  • Comment number 12.

    It is very simple; for 100 or 200 meters events, you have a Starting Gate, (a system used for animals such as horses & dogs, where betting is particularly intense,) the Gate does not let you pass before you should!

  • Comment number 13.

    I have to agree peter but for the other events it might me difficult to implement. For the 100m it will be cinch because they all line up together. It will remove false starts forever. I think they should trial it in the mens 100m and see how it works. It will ensure every race starts when it should and it will also ensure no athletes are ever disqualified.

    There will be just one fair run, guaranteed.

    I say trial it for the mens 100m and see how it works.

  • Comment number 14.

    Not sure if the starting gate would work very well for people rather than animals - should they run a hare round the track too !!??

  • Comment number 15.

    I suggest doing away with false starts altogether. And instead of measuring the finish time, we should measure delta(time) = finish time - start time separately for each athlete. This way, nobody gets disqualified for a false start; and nobody gets an advantage by making a false start.

  • Comment number 16.

    One thing I've notived with sprinters is they do a lot of practice starts but don't actually do it as in race conditions ie not false starting and following the start procedure as in a race.

    Look at Colin Jackson I don't remember him ever fasle starting and that was in the days when you were allowed one. He has to think about the hurdles as well and as good start and getting to the first hurdle first is vital.

    There must have been races in the past where an athletes best race was left in numerous false starts, This is the fairest way

    At the end of the day is it really the hardest thing in the world to not go before the gun? Imagine a concert pianist performing for hours without once hitting the wrong note. All the sprinter has to do is hit the right key once at the start and run as hard as they can.

  • Comment number 17.

    Forders - this is excellent. I love your efforts to take the reader right in there with the athletes. The inside-camp-jennis piece was also great, and your decathlon blog the stuff of legends (Dirs only did his get fit piece to keep up). Keep them coming, it's as close as most of us will get.

    @7 - I think your criticism is unwarranted, unsubstantiated and makes you look rather foolish. Besides which no-one makes you read this stuff. Instead of demanding your licence fee back (gee, that's original) go and listen to the shipping forecast instead.

  • Comment number 18.

    If you watch Formula One do u only watch Qualiyfying because you want see who the quickest is or do you watch the race because you want to see competition.

    Its a 100M race not a time trial. Starting is part of the competition. If you cant get it right why should you get a second chance when people who can have done fine. Allowing false starts is punishing those who get it right.

    On top of that the majority of critics I have heard is from fairweather fans who don't follow athletics but like to jump on the bandwagon when someone transcends the sport like Bolt. I watched the Final and couldnt belive he false started it made the race much more interesting than him racing himself and getting a quick time. Because lets face it without Powell and Gay giving him competition I find it a little boring watching one guy win without competition and that isnt a criticism because Bolt is a once in a lifetime tremendous athlete.

  • Comment number 19.

    I think this an excellent article, full of insight for people such as myself who have never been an athletics sprinter. Darren's analogy was perfectly pitched to help understanding.

    Some good points from 18 too. I believe Bolt new he had no realistic competition from his fellow athletes in the final so he decided to attack the clock to create that competitive element; the best time in the world this year or possibly even the world record was his objective. A great start was need for a great time and hence his failure.

    I haven't seen much of the coverage but did Bolt even complain? He knows the rules, accepts them and behaved accordingly. The result was his disqualification and for Tom's false starts it was a little pain, the slapsies analogy illustrating again for the layman.

    Oh and 7, what a plum.

  • Comment number 20.

    If the false start rule stays then perhaps the race should just be run after the gun for major events where video of the start is available. Whoever leaves the blocks ahead of the gun (or allowed reaction time) would be disqualified at the end of the race, whether they 'win' or not. Minor twitches, such as Dwain Chambers', where the athlete does not leave the blocks would not be classed as a false start.
    If Yohan Blake twitched in the 100m final he should have been given the false start under the current rules, especially if it was before Bolt took off. Under my proposal. Bolt might have still been disqualified after the race, but could have run and protested later.
    It would be much the same as a stewards' inquiry in horse racing.

  • Comment number 21.

    Really interesting article.

    My concern with the false start rule, picture a twitchy Olympic Final, Bolt, Gay and Powell all lined up alongside each other, nerves jangling, and one (or more gets disqualified) it feels to me like thats ruining the spectacle.

    I agree there were times when it got time consuming with the yellow card stuff but the one yellow to the whole field then DQs rule was good, and the little extra wait I found helped to build excitement and anticipation in the fans. Certainly I didn't feel fed up of mift about having to wait!

  • Comment number 22.

    I should add that this is a great article as usual by Fordyce really bringing a different angle to bring in people to the sport. Campbell good as well.

    I've noticed you've not raced for a bit though Tom, get those spikes back on!

  • Comment number 23.

    Tom, your comment regarding Bolt's "cartoonish antics" struck me as mean spirited. A world class athlete who has struck a connection with his countrymen and whose enthusiasm for his sport is obvious should be given more courtesy than you display.

    I, like you, do not preen before an athletic competition. To run our race without a per-race pose is a personal decision which I applaud. But then again we are not a world record holders, with a marketing campaign, and an entire country in support.


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