What has happened to the sport of athletics, one of the most pure of all sports?

Let’s start at the very beginning. We don’t know for certain how the sport really began, but we can surmise. Two guys argued about who was the faster of the two. So they had a race. Then guys argued about whether one was faster than the other but they couldn’t race against each other, so they found a distance they knew was correct (this is way before tape measures could be bought in a shop, and GPS would have been considered as magic), which was the mile mark on the road outside the village. The one guy in the village with a hand watch timed it.

And so the sport would have grown. To army men probably argued about who could heave a cannonball further, so they had a competition, and we have the birth of shot put (ending with the massive 16 pound ball we use today).

It was pure and simple, who was the better. No administrators, no complex rules, nothing.

Then, the more people got involved, the more we really wanted to know who was the best. Mainly because then people could gamble it. But, if the competitors could get paid, they might rig the result. So, let’s make the sport amateur (there is also the aristocratic element to this, in that it keeps the working class in their place).

So rules were developed. But these were pure rules. 100m is 100m (not 99.5m). Everyone had to start together so we evolved the start we have today. Then we needed to know who won, so they put a tape across the line. But who really wins, does it help to throw your hand forward? So we have the rule as to the torso having to cross the line.

And the rules got progressively clearer as time passed and technology made it easier to assist. To the extent that we have cameras which can time to 1000th of a second (but interestingly, unlike swimming, we prejudice the athlete furthest away from the gun, who hears the signal from the gun last).

But the rules remained about validity of the performance. Was the race run over 100m? If not, the race is valid, but it can’t be recorded as being a 100m race. If an athlete is allowed to false start, it is not a valid performance and can’t be used to compare to other athletes.

Then the sport became about entertainment. So people wanted to know who was running. The answer was to give the athlete a number and to give the spectators a programme with the names next to the numbers. Makes absolute sense. That’s not about validity of performances, it’s about the presentation of the sport as entertainment.

Then we arrive at 2017 in South Africa….

Athletes can now cut corners in races (even track races!), then can do just about anything which impacts on the validity of performances but they will not be disqualified or their performances rendered invalid.

But woe betide the runner who does not wear his number. Even when the number has no relevance as there is no programme and no-one can identify the runner from his number, if he does not wear it, he will be disqualified, and probably fined too.

We have had a national marathon champion, who won by minutes, disqualified because his number fell off his back. He ran the correct route, he did not cheat, but he wasn’t wearing his back number!

Recreational runners, who are not going to affect the competitive side of the race at all, are called aside after they have run their first half marathon, proud of their achievement. They are then shouted at by an official and disqualified from the results, because they wore the number the were given on their back rather than their front.

If you asked someone not involved with the sport what they would think of the situation that you can cheat but not be disqualified, but you run the correct distance and don’t obstruct anyone else, and you get disqualified for wearing a number which is not used to identify you, they would say it is crazy.

And they would be correct. The sport of athletics in South Africa has gone mad.