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.