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Athletes frustrated with officials

27 July 2007

By Elliott Almond

Starting a track and field race is one of the simplest tasks in international sports.

On your marks ... get set ... BANG.

Almost all track fans are familiar with the loud report of the starting gun signaling the race is off.

But the way they have started races at the 2007 Pan American Games in new Joao Havelange Stadium in Rio de Janeiro has caused a revolt among the sprinters. The officials have used a quick, ready, set, go formula, ending with a tepid pop gun some haven't been able to distinguish from rowdy crowds.

The athletes' frustration was best summarized by Canada's Tyler Christopher, who won the silver medal in the 400 meters on Wednesday night. After falling behind because of a mix up at the start, he finished in a pedestrian 45.05 seconds. Then came the histrionics.

Christopher, winner of the bronze medal at the 2005 world championships, booted a yellow plastic lane marker afterward. He then pushed aside an event official and stalked out of the stadium to a rain of boos from Brazilian fans.

It has been the fans' lack of understanding about the courtesies of track that have plagued what normally is one of the premier events of the Pan American Games. Brazil doesn't have a strong tradition in the sport, and many of the curious at the stadium didn't realize they were supposed to curb their enthusiasm during the sprint starts.

In the women's 400, Debbie Dunn of Avondale, Ariz., couldn't hear the gun from the outside lane because fans failed to quiet down for the start. She thought she heard two guns, which would be the signal for a false start. Dunn stood up after a few meters and looked back. Laverne Jones of the Virgin Islands, in lane 7 next to her, also stopped.

In a race won by Ana Guevara of Mexico, the two women felt robbed. Afterward Jones cursed to herself and was in no mood to discuss what transpired.

"There's so much noise, you can't hear down there," said Dunn, who finished last.

In all her years in track, she never experienced anything like it. "Maybe I should have been more focused," she said. "But I thought they were going to call it back."

The fans, many wearing the familiar parakeet colors of Brazil's flag, have shown rabid loyalty to their native athletes. They also have brought their ribald soccer antics to the brick-colored track. Etiquette, unfortunately, has been lost.

"They continue to cheer when athletes are on the track," said Canada's Angela Whyte, who won the bronze medal in the women's 100-meter hurdles. "It is getting on athletes' nerves."

Canadian teammate Perdita Felicien, one of the few track stars competing at the Pan American Games, also left shaking her head. She won the silver in the hurdles behind winner Deloreen Ennis-London of Jamaica, who set a Games' record with a time of 12.65 seconds.

Felicien said organizers need to do more to make the events run smoothly.

Christopher, who had put his hand up for a restart, agreed.

"They held me too long," he said of the 400. "There was no start. I got five steps into my race and then I have to go."

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