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.