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Why IAAF Rules require a Rethink after Steeplechaser’s Disqualification

This article was first written for and published by LawInSport. Click here to view the original. 

French middle distance runner
Mekhissi-Benabbad has been making headlines again for all the wrong
reasons. Having previously found fame for fighting with his team mate on
track and abusing mascots during meets;
this time, while winning an emphatic victory in the 3000m steeplechase
at the recent European Championships, he threw it all away by celebrating during the race.

Mekhissi-Benabbad was on the final
straight, ahead by a comfortable margin, when he removed his vest,
taking the final hurdle with it in his mouth. At the time, he was shown a
yellow warning card (the same penalty a jubilant goal-scoring
footballer receives for engaging in similar celebratory activities);
but, subsequently, he was stripped of the gold medal and disqualified.

So, what exactly was the offence that Mekhissi-Benabbad committed?

The initial yellow warning card was
shown for an infringement of Rule 125.5 of the International Association
of Athletics Federations’ Competition Rules(IAAF Rules), which gives the referee authority to warn or expel an athlete “guilty of acting in an unsportsmanlike or improper manner”.

The Rule is not dissimilar to FIFA Law 12,
which provides for an automatic yellow card for unsporting behaviour
from a player who removes his jersey after scoring a goal.
It is worth noting that referee’s in football are expected to act in a
preventative manner and to exercise common sense in dealing with the
celebration of a goal.

The disqualification followed an appeal
by the Spanish team, whose athlete finished fourth, relying on rules in
relation to athletes dress. In particular, IAAF Rule 143.1:

in all events, athletes
must wear clothing which is clean, and designed and worn so as not to be
objectionable…athletes shall participate in the uniform clothing
approved by their national governing body. The Victory Ceremony and any
lap of honour are considered part of the competition for this purpose…

The appeal also relied upon IAAF Rule 143.7 Every athlete shall be provided with two bibs which, during the competition, shall be worn visibly on the breast and back…”

IAAF Rule 143.10 is also relevant No athlete shall be allowed to take part in any competition without displaying the appropriate bib(s) and/or identification”.

Mekhissi-Benabbad’s celebration was a clear breach of IAAF Rule 143.7 and arguably a breach of Rules 143.1 and 143.10 too.

It is interesting to note that Usain
Bolt’s victory lap draped in Tartan following the Commonwealth Games
victory in the 4 by 100m relay was probably not approved by his national
governing body and could potentially have led to a challenge had South
Africa been more switched on to the dress code legalities. Not to forget
the exuberant celebrations from Robert Harting at London 2012 who, on
winning the gold medal in the discus, ripped his vest off in front of
the crowds and then took on huge hurdles draped in the German flag.

It does raise the question of whether
enforcement of the rules ought to depend on a whether a challenge is
raised by a dissatisfied competitor. Currently, the rules provide that
challenges can be raised by an athlete competing in the same event or
someone acting on the athlete’s behalf or a representative from the
team, rule 146.3. A team may sensibly raise a challenge where there is a
breach of race rules, a lane violation or impeding a competitor.
Trackside officials are on the look out for such matters but, if it has
been missed, a challenge from a competing team is appropriate. Such
violations may offer the contravening athlete a competitive advantage
and it is right that they should be open to challenge by competitors for
the good of the sport and to encourage fair competition.

Clothing violations do not seem to fall
into the same category. What if an athlete’s clothing was ripped or
damaged during a fall in the race. Assuming the athlete recovered from
the fall and returned to the race, is it right that they could be
disqualified because their clothing was considered objectionable or
their bib was no longer in place? That would hardly be in the spirit of
fair competition. Some great moments come on the track when an athlete
recovers from a set back to claim a place on the podium.

What was objectionable about
Mekhissi-Benabbad’s conduct was not that his number was obscured or his
vest off, but that he celebrated victory before he had won demonstrating
a lack of respect for his competitors.

Usain Bolt was criticised in 2008 after
he eased up before winning the 100 metre title. Bolt opened his arms and
slapped his chest as he cruised to victory over his rivals. The head of
the International Olympic Committee criticised Bolt for not
demonstrating proper respect for his rivals. Bolt was not stripped of
his title. Bolt ran that race with his shoe lace undone but that lapse
in wardrobe was no hindrance to his performance and did not result in
criticism by his defeated rivals.

For Mekhissi-Benabbad, the trackside
official was satisfied with a warning for the impact the behaviour had
on the sport’s reputation and image. The charge of unsporting behaviour
is the more serious criticism, and to have the greater sanction applied
for a clothing violation does not reflect well on the sport.

A yellow card fits the crime in football
and it should do the same for athletics. The simplest way to avoid this
issue is to leave the matter of penalties for unsporting behaviour to
the trackside officials. Competitors should only be able to raise a
challenge if a competitive advantage has been gained. The best athletes
competing cleanly should be on the podium.

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