The Device That Democratized the Foot Race

Thanks to starting blocks, races were no longer won by who could dig the best foothold. An Object Lesson.

Usain Bolt at the start of the 2012 Olympics 200-meter final (Matt Dunham / AP)

When sprinters take their marks, they place their hands on the ground and position their feet onto angled blocks. Before the start signal, the runners rest their knees on the ground, then transfer their weight squarely on the blocks. As soon as the sound waves of the signal reach their ears, their feet catapult off the blocks. If the sprinter pushes off too soon, it means disqualification from the race. But sprints last 400 meters or less, so every millisecond spent on the blocks after the race has begun is a millisecond wasted.

The start of competitive foot races like those of the Olympics have only recently evolved into the test of nerves and alertness they currently are. The stadion race of 600 podes (locally determined “feet”) began the tradition of sprints at Olympia. It spread to the other Panhellenic games throughout the Mediterranean. As the Greeks designed and redesigned the games, they invented ways to make racers take the field in a uniform manner. First, they gave the runners a place to put their feet at the beginning of the race. Later, they designed a gate called a hysplex that released runners at the same time. When the modern Olympic sprints commenced in 1896, runners improvised their start, choosing to crouch or start in the ancient style as they wished. Then came the starting blocks.

The starting blocks helped runners take the crouching position developed in the late 19th century by American and Australian sprinters. They required all runners to direct their energy horizontally—instead of vertically—at the race’s start. But today, they do more than just help runners get off the line. They also detect false starts, putting the race behind the feet of the sprinter as much as in front of them. As a technology of fairness, the starting blocks helped turn foot racing into an ideal for egalitarian citizenship.

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Ancient Greek stadiums show continual upgrades to the starting line of the race. The Greeks ran from a stone starting gate along a central rectangular track. Ropes stretched in front of the runners fell in unison onto the track, releasing them to begin the race. The precursor to the starting block, called a balbis, was redesigned at several stadiums to accommodate a starting gate, even when it meant reducing the number of runners or the width of the track to provide room for the starting gate. The perpetual reworking of the stone balbis is one indication of how seriously the Greeks took these athletic events.

Most contemporary knowledge of the hysplex comes from four tracks at Epidauros, Isthmia, Nemea, and Corinth. At both ends of the track, engineers placed stone support bases for a starting gate. These bases were filled in with wood, which was removed, oiled, and stored when games were not being held. Since the wood and ropes of the starting gate have not been preserved in the archaeological record, historians make guesses based on textual and artistic representations.

The art on one jar from Athens shows the start of the hoplite race. Two horizontal cords act as barriers. One grazes the knees, the other the waist. The cords stretch from one end of the stone starting block to the other. The cords connect to two posts, which were held up under tension by rope. Officials kept the posts upright while the athletes positioned themselves. At the start of the race, they released both posts simultaneously. The weight of the gate and the tension of the ropes brought both crashing to the floor, providing a visual and auditory signal that the race was afoot.

Starting blocks built into the field make foot races a permanent part of the city. That gave blocks symbolic meaning as much as competitive utility. In Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, first performed in 411 BC, the starting gate serves as a metaphor for releasing women onto the political field, where they run an antiwar campaign. War might have helped inspire technological improvements to the device, too. The ropes and wooden base of the starting gate correspond with the development of the catapult, first mentioned in Athens in 355 BC. Some stadia constructed in this period seem to have been caught up with the interest in ropes and pulleys demonstrated by engineers of Philip II of Macedon.

Evidence for starting gates have been found at several sites of major Panhellenic games, including Isthmia, Olympia, and Nemea. Some suggest that the Greeks also engineered against false starts in other ways. Toe holds were carved into the blocks, forcing runners to adopt a wide stance. It provided balance, which reduced the likelihood of false starts. Runners had a fixed starting location, so they were more likely to stay in their lane, which was marked by cords or colored chalk. As is the case today, sprinters were not supposed to block or run into another athlete in order to win.

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Starting blocks appeared in modern games thanks to an innovation that was made simultaneously on opposite sides of the world. Whereas Ancient Greek runners are depicted with one arm forward, using their undulating hands to build momentum, modern sprinters rely more on their legs. In 1887, the Aboriginal sprinter Bobby McDonald began from a crouching position in Sydney. Across the Atlantic, the Yale athlete C.H. Sherrill was photographed in the same pose in 1888. The crouching start became ubiquitous among college runners by 1890. Today, both the Government of Australia and Yale claim the first crouching start without mentioning the other.

The crouching position that modern starting blocks impose facilitates a horizontal surge of energy. This burst propels runners to higher speeds more quickly. Formerly, track stars dug holes for their toes in the dirt of the track to plant their feet for the start. George Bresnahan, of the University of Iowa, filed a patent for a foot support in 1927, changing the definition of a starting block from the ancient, permanent stone base to the modern, portable metal device with offset foot rests—the design competitors and spectators know today.

The blocks were not immediately used, as races would have been different enough to upset records. However, the benefits of starting blocks soon became apparent. In one case, film footage showed that Ralph Metcalfe dug his holes significantly back from his true start in the 200 meter event at the 1932 Olympics, but he refused a rerun of his third place finish in deference to an impressive and potentially unrepeatable American sweep of the podium. It took until the 1948 London games for starting blocks to appear at the Olympics. Early models were both heavy and susceptible to slipping from the force of the athlete’s takeoff.

In contrast to the Greek starting gate, contemporary athletes must take off from the starting blocks without the visual aid—and physical barrier—of a starting gate. This increases the possibility of a false start. In modern games, false starts are determined by an athlete’s reaction to the starting sound. Because sound waves take time to reach human ears, there is a lag between the starting sound and the athlete’s movement. Athletes take at least 0.110 of a second to respond. Given the small margins of victory in short sprints, even this delay can make a difference. In the 100 meter final at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Usain Bolt, the world-record holder, reacted in 0.155 seconds. Since Bolt is a competitor whose tall frame lends to slower starts, the first fractions of a second are one place in the sprint where Bolt’s rivals can seek to gain an advantage. To ensure the fairest start possible, race officials began placing speakers behind each athlete to make the start equally audible for all competitors.

The starting blocks can also disqualify athletes who begin the race before the starting sound reaches their ears. Sensors within the blocks track the pressure the athlete’s body applies to the block. The latest Omega blocks take measurements 4,000 times per second, enough to tell judges if athletes moved their bodies while still on the starting blocks, or if they have reacted so fast that they must have begun the start before the signal. The technology has also inspired tactical use among sprinters. A 2003 rule change led some to believe that runners were deliberately committing a penalty-free first false start to encourage the unfortunate runner who ran the second false start to be disqualified. In 2010, international rules instituted a zero-tolerance policy for false starts.

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For the ancient Greeks, starting blocks and gates mattered enough to set in stone and wood.  This was not simply because races formed a circuit that took athletes back to the same cities and stadia. It was also because the moment that everyone took their place on the starting line was an important one. At the start of the race, all competitors were equal. They took the field in unison. Athletes ran on a perfectly flat surface, one that bore no resemblance to the grassy fields and rocky hills of their homes or battlefields. The falling ropes of the starting gate showed that these sprints were signs of civilization.

In the modern Olympics, athletes did not originally have starting blocks or a starting gate. With the adoption of the crouching start, starting blocks have replicated the ancient concern for a coordinated movement in the modern games. The standardization of blocks has meant that athletes no longer face the race variables of the condition of the track and their adroitness at digging holes. In their ideal form, starting blocks and gates are a technology of democracy. Every man or woman can run a race, but the blocks are designed to turn that race into a contest of equals.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.