BIRMINGHAM, England — The men’s 400 meters here Saturday night at the 2018 world indoor track and field championships was awesome. Until, suddenly, it was not.
Spain’s Oscar Husillos crossed the line in a championship-record 44.92, followed by Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, the London 2012 400 silver medalist. Husillos was instantly met with precisely the sort of joyous theater that track and field needs: a rooting section made up of dudes in costumes, a banana, a cow and (Batman sidekick) Robin, who dashed to the grandstand railing and threw him a Spanish flag.
And then it was announced that both Husillos and Luguelin had been disqualified for lane violations — victims in a tsunami of ticky-tack DQs that swept over these championships.
Why does track and field insist on such self-inflicted buzzkill?
So dumb. So unnecessary. So counter-productive.
In the NBA Finals, the refs let them play.
Same for the NFL, and especially the Super Bowl. It’s a truism that the refs could call holding on every play in every football game. But they don’t. And in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, you basically would have to commit a felony to get called for a penalty. Something minor? Whatever.
These 2018 world indoors are, as IAAF president Seb Coe pointed out in his welcome note in the official program here, “the most important global athletics meet of the year,” athletics being what everyone everywhere calls track and field except in the United States.
This, then, was the track version of the NBA Finals. The track Super Bowl. You’d think the officials would have, you know, let them race.
In all, more than 20 individuals or teams were DQ'd, mostly for running outside their lane.
The nonsense carried all the way through the relays that on Sunday brought the meet to a close: the British women's 4x400 team, which had originally finished fourth, moving to third after the Jamaicans, who had crossed the line second, were DQ'd for a changeover violation.
Follow along here: the Brits were themselves then thrown out for obstruction. They appealed. They won. That made them one of four teams over the course of these 2018 worlds to prevail after a review of video evidence.
Underscoring the absurdity:
On Friday, all five guys in Heat 3 of the men’s 400 were DQ’d. The IAAF said that was a first. What happened? Qatar’s Abdalleleh Haroun false-started. Then they ran the race, with one of the pre-meet favorites for gold, Grenada’s Bralon Taplin, crossing first. Then came word that he, along with Jamaica’s Steven Gayle, Latvia’s Austris Karpinskis and Alonzo Russell of the Bahamas were DQ’d for lane infringements.
The wave of DQs is all the more perplexing because Coe is literally on record as suggesting they’re not helpful.
In a piece he wrote last October for the London newspaper the Evening Standard, reviewing changes to the sport’s governance and those he’d like to see, Coe noted: “Or simplifying the rules of our sport, reducing for instance disqualifications in major championships for minor lane infringements in distance races …”
Could it be more plain?
So what is going on?
1. There’s new video technology that enables officials to see whether someone has technically committed such a minor lane infringement.
This, though, is the track version of those red-light cameras that a few years ago were the rage in some American municipalities. They were touted as safety enhancers. Wrong. They turned out to be just another way for cities to make money — and angering drivers, some vowing that they would never, ever go back to that intersection again.
2. There’s a demonstrated bias here in Britain when it comes to implementing the rules.
Joke: this is why the Pilgrims had to leave here, too. They couldn’t stand the pedantic, peevish way the Brits, even back then, were such godawful rule-implementers.
Optics reality: the perception at these championships is that the rules are being bent to favor the home team. That is a big problem, particularly when the next big meet on the 2018 calendar is an eight-nation get-together back in London at Olympic Stadium in July.
Oh, hey -- the British 4x4 women's team won its appeal? Wow! Quelle surprise!
This headline from the American running site FloTrack, for instance: “Are the British officials playing favorites at IAAF world championships?”
As was the buzz here — and that story points out — the American Paul Chelimo, an Olympic silver medalist, was DQ’d after a third-place finish in a men’s 3k heat for taking one step — a single step — outside the rail.
Compare in this side-by-side, which you can also find at FloTrack: in the men’s 10k final at last summer’s London championships, British track and field god Mo Farah did exactly the same thing. He took one step inside the curb. Was he DQ’d? Not a chance.
“It’s devastating,” Chelimo said here. “It’s an indoor track and it’s banked and we’re running 15 laps. What do you expect? It’s not going to be 100 percent. Someone is going to lose a step. And it happened today it was me who lost a step.
“Whatever I was doing was not intentional … I stepped inside the rail by mistake.”
It may be well be that those working behind the scenes are from various countries, not just the United Kingdom. But look at this table, put together by Canadian researcher Trent Stellingwerff. Look at the two outliers — the indoor world championships in Birmingham in 2003 and again in Birmingham in 2018.
Here came a statement entitled, “IAAF response to lane infraction disqualifications,” which said the following:
“Indoor tracks vary widely and far more than outdoor tracks, particularly on the turns which impacts the centripetal force as athletes move from the banked turns to the flat straight. The DQs have been ratified using video footage of the infringements. Indoor racing is a specialized type of competition and many athletes spend very little time training on indoor tracks. Greater familiarization of different tracks ahead of competitions could be a way forward in reducing these infringements. We will talk to the athletes and seek their views.”
Before we get to the last sentence, a note on the second-to-last: this is not an athlete problem. It’s a rules and officials problem, and to throw this back at the athletes is not only tone deaf but speaks to an abdication of responsibility.
Almost all athletes train outdoors. It’s absolute gibberish to expect athletes, and especially those from developing nations, to develop “greater familiarization of different tracks ahead of competitions.” Moreover, there isn’t enough financial incentive — given the realities of the indoor season — for them to do so. Let's get real.
Meanwhile, if the IAAF wants to talk to athletes, here is a suggestion. Start with the American middle distance and steeplechase runner Colleen Quigley. Here is what she told the U.S. site Let's Run:
“I was like, oh, yeah, these Brits are freaking tough. I don’t know if they’re just out to get people or they just have fun DQ-ing people, but it is brutal out there. They are just crushing people, seems like for no reason.”
For the record: Quigley was DQ’d last summer in London from the first heat of the women’s 3k steeplechase prelims after finishing in third, an automatic finals qualifier, for stepping on the white line that separates the infield from the first lane.
Every sport has rules. Track has a lot of them.
Rule No. 1, as the sport undergoes what Coe has essentially made clear is a far-reaching recalibration, should be the following: common sense.
Did a violation matter? Did it give an athlete a material competitive advantage? Did it make a material difference in the race? That should be the standard.
If not, this is big-girl and big-boy racing. Let them go.
No one — repeat, no one — buys a ticket to see the officials or to hear from the Jury of Appeals. That is buzzkill, and to the max.
One of the, if not the key, appeal of track is that it is so primal. Who is fastest? You start here, you end there, who's across the line first? Everyone understands that. Rules that layer complexities onto something that elemental make it frustrating for would-be consumers, and for newbies one of the oft-repeated frustrations is that it is not easy to figure out what in the hell is going on down there on the track.
To be plain: any and all such obstacles need to be cleared away like brush at a campsite.
Track is competing with the NBA, NFL, the Premier League and every other sport you can imagine for fan and sponsor interest and dollars.
When, say, the NFL has a rules problem, the league fixes it, like it's in the midst of doing right now, with the what-is-a-catch issue.
Track should similarly get this fixed.
It’s hard enough out there. Why ruin your own show?
Even the athletes — the ones the IAAF purports it wants to speak to — understand. In that men’s 400, the Czech Pavel Maslak crossed the line third, in 45.47, more than a half-second back of Husillos. After Husillos and Santos were DQ’d, Maslak was upgraded to first.
“They would have beaten me, anyway,” Maslak said. “So even if it is gold, it will have a bronze flavor for me.”