Should There Be Penalties for Hitting Hurdles?

One of the trends in the men’s 110m high hurdle race that has become increasingly disturbing to me is the tendency of many hurdlers to hit an inordinate number of hurdles in the course of a race. Just as, in the women’s 100m hurdle race, the low height of the hurdles enables hurdlers to get away with inefficient technique, similarly, in the men’s 110m hurdle race, the freedom to hit hurdles without any penalty has the same effect. Something needs to be done about this issue, as we’re seeing more and more sloppy hurdling among even the elite level hurdlers. This past weekend when I was attending the Nike Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, NC, I was sitting next to someone who didn’t know a lot about the hurdles. While watching hurdles fall like dominos in a preliminary heat, my friend asked me, quite innocently, “Do they get penalized for that?” I rolled my eyes and answered, “No, only if the officials think they’re not making a legitimate attempt to clear the obstacle.” The reason I rolled my eyes is because I’ve heard the same question so many times before. And because I’ve given the same answer so many times before. Yet hurdles are still falling. And hurdlers are still sprinting to the finish line, un-penalized.

Back in the days of Renaldo Nehemiah, Greg Foster, Tonie Campbell, and other hurdlers of that early 1980’s era, there was a heavy emphasis placed upon hurdling technique. Nehemiah never hit hurdles. Foster rarely hit hurdles, and when he did, he crashed, and because he was such a high-level hurdler, his crashes made the dangers of hitting hurdles apparent for all eyes to see. Campbell was another one who put a high premium on running clean races. Technical efficiency was the norm back in those days. Then along came a guy named Roger Kingdom. The two-time Olympic gold medal winner ushered in a new era of hurdling that still rules to this day. Kingdom, a big, strong athlete who also played defensive back at the University of Pittsburgh, found that he was powerful enough to knock hurdles over and keep on going. When he first arrived on the scene, it was downright bewildering to see hurdles literally bouncing off the track while he, totally unfazed, kept on running without any break in his stride. The truth of the matter, however, is that Kingdom was much more of a technician than people give him credit for. I always mention, when the topic comes up, that Kingdom’s fastest races – his sub-13.00 races – were clean races, and that, every year, his technique improved as the season wore on. But still, when people saw Kingdom smashing hurdles and winning races, they figured they could do that too. It’s a lot easier to just mow the hurdles down than it is to learn all the nuances of technique. So, whether Kingdom meant to or not, he ushered in the era of the power hurdler. Nowadays, with so much emphasis on power in the sprinting events, the same emphasis has been transferred to the 110’s. I can’t believe the number of elite hurdlers I see who make such basic mistakes as swinging from the hip instead of leading with the knee! How do you get to be one of the best hurdlers in the world making such a basic mistake? And how much better could you be if you corrected it?

One thing we can be sure of is that hurdlers are not going to police themselves. If the goal is to get from A to B as fast as you can, then hurdlers are going to try to get from A to B as fast as they can. I can remember one time when I was running in the semi-final round of a conference championship meet in college. I was in lane one, and I was having a good race, hurdling quite well and staying in the thick of the pack, when all of a sudden I heard an official scream at me right as I was clearing the fifth or sixth hurdle, “get that lead leg up!” He startled me so much that I did start getting my lead leg up, and I ran a clean second half of the race, enabling me to make it to the finals. Prior to the official yelling at me – which had never happened to me before, and which I had never seen happen to anyone else before – I didn’t even realize that I had been hitting hurdles. The reason I didn’t realize it was because I was so focused on the race itself, and because I didn’t feel the contact with the barriers slowing me down. But obviously, I was hitting hurdles hard enough and often enough to risk being disqualified. My point is that if I, at 5’11½”, 175 pounds, and a personal best in the mid-15’s, could run through hurdles without even realizing I was hitting them, imagine how easy it is to do for these power hurdlers nowadays who are much stronger than I was and much faster than I was. There really is no incentive to learn efficient hurdling technique and to master proper hurdling mechanics if you can just plow right through the doggone things without any penalties.

One could argue that the penalty is built into the race itself: hitting hurdles slows you down; hitting hurdles causes you to lose time. No matter how fast you run hitting hurdles, you always could have run even faster had you not hit any. Although there is credibility to that logic, it doesn’t quite hold up when viewed in the light of other events. A triple jumper, for instance, could scratch by half an inch and jump 54 feet. So what do the officials do? Deduct a half-inch and give him an official marking of 53’ 11½”? No, they disqualify the attempt. Same thing in long jump, same thing in shot-put, same thing in discus. A foul’s a foul, a scratch is a scratch, no further discussion necessary. Now I’m not saying that a hurdler should be disqualified for hitting a hurdle, because, although hurdling does have some similarities to certain field events, hurdling is not a field event. What I’m saying is that there does need to be some measures put in place that will give the power hurdlers who just bust right through hurdles a genuine fear of consequences if they continue to hurdle that way.

One thing I should mention is that the manner in which a hurdler hits hurdles should matter in regards to penalization. The power hurdlers who have minimal technical skill and just drive that lead foot through the crossbar are the ones who are compromising the validity of the event The old rule that says you must be making a legitimate attempt to clear the hurdle is one that doesn’t seem to be enforced anymore. When is the last time you saw someone who actually finished a race get disqualified for not making a legitimate effort to negotiate the barriers? It doesn’t happen. A hurdler like Allen Johnson who hits a lot of hurdles with his lead-leg hamstring or trail leg knee shouldn’t be penalized in the same manner as a power hurdler who pushes hurdles to the ground with the lead foot. Johnson is, at least, making a legitimate attempt to clear the barrier, and, usually, by the time he hits it, his lead foot is already past the barrier.

So what to do in terms of penalties? It’s simple: enforce the fair effort rule. If that rule were to be strictly enforced regularly, especially at major championship meets, then the problem of too many hurdlers hitting too many hurdles would most likely go away as a direct consequence. We all have seen, for instance, how there are very few false starts these days now that the rules have been tightened up on that infraction. If, as a hurdler, you know that you won’t be penalized for running through hurdles, and you don’t feel that hitting hurdles is slowing you down, then you’re going to keep bulldozing through hurdles with impunity. Now, there’s obviously going to be a huge gray area in regards to what, exactly, constitutes, a legitimate effort to clear the barriers. But just like in the race in which the official yelled at me to get my lead leg up, the reason he yelled at me is because I wasn’t clearing the hurdles, I wasn’t getting over the hurdles; instead, I was running through the hurdles. Ultimately, it’s up to the officials to decide if a hurdler is truly gaining an unfair advantage by hitting hurdles in a particular manner. And, just as with any other sport, the ruling of the officials should be the final word in the matter.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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