The hope of World Athletics, the governing body for track and field, is that by holding its signature event in the United States, the biennial World Championships, the sport will gain a bigger foothold in a lucrative media market.
Statistically, more American high school kids take part in track and field than any other sport. And no country comes close when you look at medal tables from the Olympics and Worlds. Yet those same athletes who dominate global competitions have to spend the bulk of their careers overseas, where high-level meets and money are easier to find.
But both the brutal one-false-start-and-you're-out rule, which is now decided by a seemingly arbitrary reaction-time number, as well as a broadcast approach that in some time zones favored "America's Got Talent" over some of the most talented athletes on the planet, won't help the cause.
On Sunday, the United States won nine of the 21 medals awarded across seven event finals in Eugene, Oregon, but two stories dominated social media as the day ended: the Jamaican women again sweeping the 100 meters, and the "false" start of American hurdler Devon Allen.
Allen was one of three athletes on the night who fell victim to World Athletics' ridiculous false-start rule. His disqualification came in the 110 meter hurdles gold medal race; in the women's 100m semifinals, St. Lucia's Julien Alfred and the Bahamas' TyNia Gaither were both DQ'd.
For events up to 400 meters, athletes use starting blocks. Each set of blocks is wired, and a pressure sensor determines if an athlete moves their feet before the starting gun or reacts to it "too quickly." WA mandates that any reaction time under 0.100 seconds is a false start.
What's the basis for that threshold? Your guess is as good as ours.
In 2009, WA — then known as the IAAF — commissioned a study that showed reaction times as fast as 0.080 seconds. Still the organization clings to the 0.100 standard, and it's hard and fast. According to the computer, Allen's reaction time was 0.099, or one one-thousandth of a second under the arbitrary threshold. It wasn't noticeable to the naked eye on re-watch, whether in normal speed or slo-mo.
Allen, who earlier this year ran the third-fastest time in history, was out. Imagine if the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald had been disqualified from the Super Bowl in February after one false start. Bonkers, right? That's what World Athletics does to its runners on one of the sport's biggest stages.
World Athletics used to have a different rule for races: the first false start went to the field, regardless of who committed it. If there was a second false start, the offending individual was out.
It isn't just fans and media who were bothered by what happened with Allen, Julien and Gaither — athletes themselves were too. Legendary sprinter Michael Johnson tweeted Allen was "robbed because of an antiquated rule"; Morolake Akinosun, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist as part of the U.S. 4x100m relay, said Allen "had the reaction of his life. This is so terrible." On the NBC broadcast Monday night, Ato Bolden and Sanya Richards-Ross were both highly critical of WA's rule.
Here's the elite America athleticism many are missing at World Championships
That rule is harmful to the sport, but if making track and field more popular in the United States was the goal of having the World Championships here for the first time, having the broadcast easily accessible and hyped everywhere possible was a necessity, and that doesn't seem to be happening.
By and large, the average American sports fan doesn't know who Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs are, or Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad. That's a damn shame. If consistent dominance and rising to the occasion every time out are your cup of competitive tea, you should definitely know who they are.
Over the past four major athletics championships — the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, and 2019 and 2022 Worlds — Crouser and Kovacs have been the gold and silver medalists in the shot put. In June 2021 at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Crouser broke the men's world record, which had stood for over 20 years.
In the six-throw event finals Sunday night, Crouser and Kovacs put on a performance for the ages. Throwing first of the two, Crouser marked 22.21 meters (72 feet, 10.5 inches) on his first try. A couple of participants later, Kovacs threw 22.63m (74-3). Crouser's second-round throw was 22.71m (74-6) and he extended that to 22.94m (75-3) on his fifth attempt. Kovacs' fifth try was 22.89m (75-1.25), coming oh so close. The throwing order was shuffled before the final round, so the man in eighth place went first and the man in first went last; Kovacs' final throw was not enough to overtake Crouser. The Americans swept the medals, with Josh Awotunde's lifetime best of 22.29m (75-1.5) in the fifth round good for bronze.
McLaughlin, at just 22 years old, has lowered the world record in the 400-meter hurdles each of the past three times she's run in a championships final, and in the first two of those she was pushed by Muhammad, the previous world record holder. Muhammad was not at the U.S. Championships last month because as reigning world champ she got an automatic berth for this year, and McLaughlin won by so much there was no one in the television frame with her as she crossed the finish line.
The opening round in women's 400 hurdles begins Tuesday night at 8:15 p.m. ET. Barring catastrophe, McLaughlin and Muhammad will face off in the gold medal race Friday at 10:50 p.m. ET.
Crouser, Kovacs, McLaughlin and Muhammad are just four examples of America's amazing current crop of track and field athletes. On Sunday night, as the United States won gold medals in men's shot put, men's 110 meter hurdles and women's pole vault, Rob Walker, commentating on Peacock's stream, said several times that perhaps a child watching Crouser or pole vault champion Katie Nageotte would be inspired to follow in their footsteps.
But if you aren't paying for Peacock premium, you aren't seeing every event live, and if you live in the Mountain Time Zone, NBC didn't show Sunday's action live, it showed "AGT," which was taped weeks ago, and then aired the night's athletics action on delay.
In the social media age, that doesn't make sense. If you're trying to drum up interest in a sport that's incredibly accessible — you only need a good pair of running sneakers to get started — that doesn't make sense.
Track and field is a great sport. World Athletics is hurting its product.