© Copyright – 2022 – Athletics Illustrated

(Jeffrey S. Rosenthal is a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto.)

The recent disqualification of Devon Allen from the World Athletics Championships 110m hurdles has again thrust into the spotlight the strange rule that starting within 0.1 seconds after the starter gun (not before) is still considered to be a false start.

The usual justification of this rule is that no human could ever react that fast, so any athlete starting so quickly must have “anticipated” the gun, and thus gained an unfair advantage. But who is to say how quickly an athlete could react? Isn’t the whole point of athletics competitions to continually improve human performance? Should we really punish a competitor simply for having a great start? Can’t we find some way to prevent the anticipation problem, while still allowing athletes to try to react as quickly as possible without limitation?

Yes, we can.

The idea is to make the starter fire the gun after a short and random delay, controlled by a computer. That way, no athlete could possibly anticipate the gun, whether by learning the patterns of the official firing the gun or being last to get set in order to control the timing or any other trick.

The solution: a random starter gun

This random starter time would eliminate the possibility of any competitor gaining any unfair starting advantage. All without imposing any lower limit — like 0.1 seconds — on the fastest possible reaction time. That way, competitors would be free to react as fast as they can, in a pure and fair contest of human athletic abilities and nothing more.

My starter gun works as follows. When it is activated, it delays for a random amount of time somewhere between one and four seconds. Then, it fires the gun. The first second allows the competitors to get ready. After that, they wait for a brief but unknown amount of time (usually less than one second), specifically designed to make anticipation virtually impossible. When the delay is over, the gun fires, and the race begins fair and square.

A version of my random starter gun is available to try out online for free at: probability.ca/starter (It works better on a desktop or laptop computer than on a smartphone.) It could easily be connected to loud speakers at a track, to control the start in a fair and random way. If anyone would like to try it out in an actual competition, then please do, and let me know how it goes!

And perhaps we can use this random starter idea, to eliminate once and for all the current crazy false start rule which punishes competitors just for reacting quickly and doing their best.