It’s Time to Change the Rules of Track and Field
It's too easy for runners to get disqualified
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One of the big storylines from the IAAF World Indoor Championships, which took place earlier this month in Birmingham, England, was the sheer number of disqualifications (18) resulting from petty lane violations. For track fans like myself, who love to complain about things like stupid rules and crappy TV coverage, what transpired at the championships was a textbook example of how the sport is working against its own best interest.
“I know ‘Rules is Rules,’ but don’t you sometimes wish that discretion could be applied more often?” track commentator Tim Hutchings tweeted in response to the DQ deluge. “In T&F we sometimes seem to revel in shooting ourselves in the foot.”
In a dubious historical first, an entire heat of the men’s 400 meters was disqualified. Meanwhile, U.S. Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo was DQed (along with three others in his heat) for literally one misstep in the men’s 3,000 meters: His right foot came down on the inside of the track, and that sealed his fate. It was a contentious decision since, per IAAF Rule 163.4, an athlete should only be disqualified in such an instance if “material advantage is gained” from the infraction, which hardly seemed true in Chelimo’s the case. (Judge for yourself.)
“When four people are disqualified for losing their balance in a race that is 3,000 meters long, something is wrong,” LetsRun.com lamented, before suggesting a rule change where, instead of disqualification, a small time penalty would be applied for stepping off the track.
That’s a good idea. While it’s obviously true that track and field must have rules that can be objectively enforced, the sport needs to do its best to minimize the likelihood of athletes taking themselves out of contention for the slightest slipup. To be clear, such strictness would be reasonable if avoiding slight slipups were a defining characteristic of the competition—for example, in sports like diving or figure skating—but that is not the case in long- and middle-distance running.
It has been suggested that the unusually high number of disqualifications in Birmingham had a lot to do with the steep angle of that particular track and the overly fastidious nature of British race officials. But silly DQs aren’t exclusive to that venue or to indoor racing.
Steeplechase fans may remember the absurd disqualification of all-time maestro Ezekiel Kemboi at the 2016 Olympics. Hours after that race finished, the Kenyan learned that he would be stripped of his bronze medal for taking a single step on the inside the track on the third lap of a seven-and-a-half lap race. Imagine losing an Olympic medal for this. The same thing happened to American steeplechaser Colleen Quigley in the prelims at the 2017 world championships in London, much to her consternation. Quigley, incidentally, was also competing in Birmingham a few weeks ago. Although she didn’t get disqualified this time, she seemed to have retained her affection for overzealous British track officials: “Do they have fun DQing people?”
At the indoor world championships this month, the most embarrassing delayed DQ came at the expense of Oscar Husillos. For a few blissful minutes, the 24-year-old Spaniard thought he was the men’s 400-meter world champion. He took a victory lap and posed for dozens of photos while draped in the Spanish national flag. In an unfortunate turn of events, Husillos eventually found out that he had been disqualified (for stepping out of his lane, naturally) while giving an interview on live TV. I don’t recommend you watch it unless you’re into schadenfreude, but you can see Husillos’s expression morph from elation to dismay. It’s a bad look for Husillos, but an even worse one for the IAAF.
Nothing kills the drama of a race like the retroactive disqualification of a top finisher. “People just saw a race, but the results don’t reflect what they saw—and that’s a problem,” Michael Johnson, U.S. sprinting legend and BBC track commentator, lamented after Husillos’s disqualification.
Indeed, from a spectator’s perspective, not being able to trust what you just saw is perhaps the number one reason doping has been such a scourge for track and field. Given the time lag between advances in doping methods and the ability to detect them, we’ve gotten to the point where it’s taken for granted that the real medalists in major competitions won’t be known until years later.
Retroactive DQs will be inevitable if we want to have an even modestly effective anti-doping system. But when it comes to the competition itself, the IAAF should take steps to minimize fiascos like what happened at the indoor worlds. To echo the ideas proposed on LetsRun.com, for distance races, how about implementing a time penalty for every time a runner’s foot comes down on the inside of the track while running a turn, instead of an automatic DQ? Such an approach may occasionally still result in a reshuffling of results at the end of a race, but the penalty would be far more proportionate to the infraction. The IAAF also needs to do everything in its power to ensure any such penalties are imposed immediately after the race to avoid another sham victory lap.
Right now, track and field needs every fan it can get. It should bolster its image as a sport that’s beautiful because it is so simple: no esoteric rules or insider jargon. The first person across the line is the winner. At least that’s how it should be.