How technology is used to detect false starts in athletics

Ferdinand Omanyala dashes to cross the finish line in the 100m race during Kipkeino Classic-World Continental Tour Gold in Nairobi, May 7, 2022. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

In major athletics events, a false start is one of athletes' biggest fears.

A false move can change the entire outcome of the race just as witnessed during the 2011 Daegu World Championships when the then world’s fastest man and defending World champion Usain Bolt was disqualified from the 100m final.

He had a false start in the race that was eventually won by his countryman and training partner, Yohan Blake. The stakes were high. In such instances, they always are.

At the third edition of the Kip Keino Classic World Athletics Continental Gold at Kasarani Stadium, athletics enthusiasts were buzzing with debate about whether there was a false or faulty start in the most anticipated race, the men's 100m sprint.

With Olympic Champion Marcel Jacobs out of contention due to food poisoning, Kenya’s favourite and African 100m record holder Ferdinand Omanyala was up against American Fred Kerley and Mike Rodgers.

The stadium fell silent. The crowd led by President Uhuru Kenyatta, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga were on the edge of their seats, ready for action. The starter's gun then went off only for a recall to be made almost immediately.

The starting device is an electronic audio-visual start signal generator that can be used for all types of races. It generates a start signal by sound, flashlight or smoke.

“Timetronic system used at the Kip Keino Classic is the same system used in global competition by World Athletics. The wireless system is an accurate and simple to use. It validates athlete’s reaction time and at the same time, brings the sound of the starter’s voice and the starting shot to each athlete individual loudspeakers” said Sam Katam, chief starter during the last weekend’s meet.

Katam, Chief Inspector at National Police Service added;

“The system is sensitive, a slight movement or shaking of hand will result in a false start. Such is registered when an athlete moves faster than 0.1 seconds after the gun. It’s good to note that when an athlete’s reaction time is faster than 0.1 seconds its false start and when the system itself fails, its faulty start.” 

At the end of the race, there is a timing scoreboard. The running time and result time are shown on the scoreboard.

Another key aspect at the finish line is the photo finish camera system, which is reliable and efficient in giving accurate results, thus validating the personal best times and world records.

“The photo finish image is actually a compilation of multiple narrow images taken precisely at the finish line. The completed photo finish image shows the location of each athlete in the track as they cross that finish,” said Jacob Langat, an athletics electronic system operator.

Previously, one false start resulted in a warning to the entire field, while a second led to disqualification regardless of the athlete, but the rule was changed in 2010 that one who false starts, is disqualified instantly.

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