Transparency Works


Weekend developments at the  2011 Track and Field World Championships in Daegu, South Korea provide some keen insights into the power of transparency. The big story Sunday was the 100-meter final — not the race itself, but the fact that superstar Usain Bolt was disqualified on a false start.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has repeatedly changed the rules on allowable false starts over the years. At one time, every runner could have one false start in each race with no penalty. Later that was reduced to one total false start allowed per race. Today’s rule is that no false starts are ever permitted.

That’s a pretty harsh rule, driven by logisitical and commercial concerns. It’s hard to keep an event on schedule when mutliple false starts occur. An event that is hard to keep on schedule is one that is hard to fit into a TV time slot. That variability raises all kinds of issues around maximizing advertising revenue.

On the other hand, one of the major reasons that fans have for watching the World Championships is the interest they have in the competitors. There’s no question that Usain Bolt, a credible claimant to the title Fastest Man Alive, is one of the most interesting people in Daegu right now. He’s personally responsible for a lot of ticket and ad sales. The fans and advertisers are equally disappointed when he gets disqualified.

So, with the world watching, what is the IAAF to do? Well, one thing they absolutely could not do is make an exception for Bolt:

“The rules are there. They’re the same for everyone,” IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said. “Usain Bolt of course is a fabulous performer. He’s a star athlete. But we have to be very careful not to stray into the world of show business where we say, ‘We have a star. The star must be there. The star must perform.”‘

In light of Bolt’s disqualification, the rules may change yet again for future races. But if they do, it will all take place with the world watching.

Interestingly, this process may not work out all that badly for anyone involved. Bolt can be castigated for making a bonehead rookie move, and the IAAF for having draconian rules in place, but no one’s credibility has been tainted. The IAAF stuck with its rules and Bolt did not benefit from special “celebrity exception” to it. Moreover, his disqualification has probably garnered more coverage than he would have gotten for winning the race, or even for setting a new world record (yawn.) His performance in the 200- and 400-meter races will get a lot more attention than they would have otherwise.

More interest, more coverage, more credibility — let’s face it: more money. Transparency works.


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  11. 2011-08-30 22:16:29

    paul barry : "Here’s why. Nobody would wait for the gun, nobody would pay any attention to the mark in the long jump, triple jump or even in the javelin." That depends on the formula used to adjust the start. Certainly if they were to double the time of the early start to determine the penalty, no one would do this.

  12. 2011-08-30 21:15:29

    Here's why. Nobody would wait for the gun, nobody would pay any attention to the mark in the long jump, triple jump or even in the javelin. Also you haven't accounted for race conditions, head to head competition, and the fact that someone is way out ahead, while the crowd has to wait for the calculations. Imagine the Olympics, 80,000 fans in the stadium, while they see the false start winner's time calculated to see if he actually won. Part of the race is leaving when you are supposed to. Lets say you have a swimmer jump the gun. He gets to go early, while everyone else is holding steady on the blocks, watching him swim away while they wait for the gun. Calculate his advantage while they dive into his wake. Long Jump. Let's just let everybody run and jump and see who does the best. Why have rules for take off and landing at all?

  13. 2011-08-30 19:01:13

    Starting at age 15 all athletes competing in the US Track & Field junior olympics are disqualified for one false start so I find it odd that anyone would think that a 25 year-old professional athlete who has known about the "new" rule for over a year and a half should be held to an easier standard. Should the rule be changed back simply because everyone's favorite sprinter disqualified and so he is never eliminated from a race again(because he would need two false starts for that to happen)? No. Frankly, this discussion wouldn't even be happening if any other athlete had DQ'd.

  14. 2011-08-30 17:59:36

    I find the no false start rule in track to be part of an overall pattern of people with power becoming more and more officious. American football (the NFL) has moved the kickoff point up so that it is very difficult now to get a good runback, which pisses off both fans and players. The NFL has been adding game-deadening rules for some tiem now, and owners and officials don't care what the fans think. To me these affairs are of a piece with boobs like Bloomberg imposing more and more social restrictions on NYC, and the Feds raiding and shutting down Gibson Guitar. Before you write me off as a crank, think about what I'm calling a pattern, especially after the next time you have to face the TSA at the airport. There is some sort of psychological "infection" affecting those to whom we give power.

  15. 2011-08-30 16:52:33

    Racing in the nude was an attempt at transparency by the Greeks.

  16. 2011-08-30 13:48:38

    Ah-I got it. This situation isn't an example of the growth of transparency-rather, it is a good example of why transparency works-in a situation where there are many incentives to 'cheat' (tv contract incentives, superstar coddling, etc), the IAAF isn't able to give in to those incentives-the transparency of the process inhibits such behavior. sk

  17. 2011-08-30 13:25:55

    I think you would find certain runners would prefer to be out in front during a race and would intentionally false start to gain an edge.

  18. 2011-08-30 13:03:49

    This is what I teach my kids all the time. No exceptions, no special cases. Gotta follow the rules, even if it hurts in the end.

  19. 2011-08-30 12:49:22

    The point is that an organization like the IAAF makes decisions subject to intense public scrutiny and they can't get away with changing their minds behind close doors. I'm not suggesting that this is any more transparent than any other such ruling in sports. I'm saying that the transparency inherent in the IAAF's processes show how effective openness can be in protecting credibility and integrity -- a good example for other organizations who might typically be able to get away with more if they are so inclined. As for whether Bolt is on steroids...I don't know. There's an interesting analysis of his performance here, showing that outlying performance does occur in sports even without steroids -- unless somebody wants to suggest that Joe Di Maggio was on the juice.

  20. 2011-08-30 12:43:09

    I've often wondered why, in the long jump, if a person stepped just over the launch line by a small distance, they didn't just subtract that distance (or perhaps twice that distance, to encourage proper footing) from his measured jump. After all, in competitions they were photographing his foot placement anyway. Now, with modern video equipment, couldn't they do the same thing with times for false starters? (Calculate how many milliseconds early he started, then add that time, and/or some reasonable multiple of -- or addition to -- that time, to his calculated time at the finish.) This would allow a single take in virtually all races, with fairness for all. (For example, if a person had a 75 millisecond early start, but crossed the finish line at the 10.000 second mark, we would add 0.075 seconds (75 ms) to the time, plus perhaps a further "false start" penalty of 0.025 seconds, giving in this case a total time of 10.100 seconds.)

  21. 2011-08-30 12:33:58

    When I saw the Instapundit link about transparency and Usain Bolt, I had the same thought PTL did: Finally! Runners who play by the rules will get their day over the steroid users! Guess not. Yeah, enforcing the false start even though he's a star was the right thing to do. Small comfort.

  22. [...] Phil Bowermaster with some very interesting comments about Bolt’s [...]

  23. 2011-08-30 12:16:59

    Frankly, I don't get what this situation has to do with transparency. Is it because the officials in charge of the race had to publicly declare their reasons for enforcing the rule? Or what? I'm glad there wasn't an exception made for a superstar, but how is that 'transparent?' Furthermore, I'm not sure that an event that was filmed (i.e. world championship racing events), and has always been filmed (for probably 40 years or more), are evidence of 'transparency' or the idea of transparency expanding. If it were an event that was formerly hidden from public oversight, I would agree. But this particular event doesn't seem like it transpired any differently than it would have in 1970. sk

  24. 2011-08-30 12:04:38

    During the last olympics a Jamaican olympic official was asked if Jamaica administers drug tests to its athletes. Laughing, he said " we don't administer drug tests in Jamaica." So much for transparency.

  25. 2011-08-29 11:34:44

    You got it right.

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  1. By Usain Bolt disqualified at Worlds « on August 30, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    […] Phil Bowermaster with some very interesting comments about Bolt’s […]

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