The 10,000m is the longest race on the track – 25 hard laps. Now add in the lack of heats in major championships allowing slower runners into the straight final, meaning there are many lapped runners. Normally, there is little problem when they come to be overtaken and doesn’t normally occur until the latter stages of the race, but sometimes they can cause great problems as the leaders have to find a safe way around.
Although running around the outside of a lapped runner who is on the inside lane may seem easy when running along the straight, going around the outside on one of the bends leads to significant difficulties more often than not. This is seen in the majority of major 10,000m races nowadays and there seems to be a lack of respect from the lapped runners on the most part for those leaders, causing them to stay locked into the shortest route.
As the Rio 2016 Olympics come to a close, both 10,000m races didn’t disappoint. Both setting great paces from the start: one resulted in a world record for Almaz Ayana in the women’s race, whereas the men’s race was left to a last lap sprint despite the early pace, resulting in Mo Farah once more winning gold. Both of which were interested by lapped runner who rarely would move out for the leaders, almost causing disaster – Mo Farah fell in the middle of the race, whilst he was also tripped in the World Championships last year on the last lap.
Having been a hot topic for debate over the last few years, these Olympics has brought the issue more into the spotlight, giving the IAAF something to think about regarding possible rule changes.
Past vs Present
Going back now almost 20 years ago to the day, Haile Gebrselassie won the first of his two Olympic 10,000m gold medals in Atlanta. The pace was fast, Olympic record fast, causing Gebrselassie and silver medalist Paul Tergat to pull away and catch many lapped runners on their way to running just over 27 minutes.
What is noticeable about this race in comparison to what is seen in many races today is the fact that those lapped runners would move aside; just drifting out into the outer lanes of 2 and 3. This meant that the top runners at the front could easily run through on the inside of the track being uninterrupted as they hunted for gold.
Fast forward the 20 years and it will be a very rare occasion that those lapped runners will move an inch, let alone acknowledge they are being overtaken.
To me, it should be no more than simple track ettiequte. You acknowledge that you are slower and move aside to allow the better runners to pass so they are not impeded. However, although this may seem like the obvious and reasonable thing to do as a lapped runner, it is now rarely seen as lapped runners look to hold the inside line around the entirety of the race.
Most recently, the closest lapped runners have come to causing a big upset was in the men’s 10,000m final at the IAAF World Championships last year in Beijing. Coming onto the back straight, there was a back marker who didn’t take any notice of the group of four leaders with Mo Farah at the front. Because of this running, Mo had to take the long way round the outside on the bend, causing Geoffrey Kamworor to clip his heels, almost sending Mo out of the race.
On other occasions the lapped runners have attempted to move to the outside lanes too late, after the faster runners have already attempted to overtake. This can sometimes be more disruptive and dangerous as it further blocks the runners and it can be argued that once those faster runners have caught you it is safer to stay on the inside.
What are the rules?
As of the IAAF rules of 2016-2017, there is no official rule which states that those lapped runners must move out of the way for other runners. This means that those back markers who do get in the way by staying in lane one are actually not doing anything wrong and have the right to maintain the shortest line.
However, staying in lane 1 or moving out late which causes an obstruction to the faster runners can result in disqualification by the Referees if their actions whilst being lapped are deemed obstructive. As stated by the IAAF rule 162.3.
2. If an athlete is jostled or obstructed during an event so as to impede his progress, then:
a. if the jostling or obstruction is considered unintentional or is caused otherwise than by an athlete, the Referee may, if he is of the opinion that an athlete (or his team) was seriously affected, order that the race be re-held or allow the affected athlete (or team) to compete in a subsequent round of the event;
b.if the jostling or obstruction, such athlete (or his team) shall be liable to disqualification from that event. the Referee may, if he is of the opinion that an athlete (or his team) was seriously affected, order that the race be re-held excluding any disqualified athlete (or team) or allow any affected athlete (or team) (other than any disqualified athlete or team) to compete in a subsequent round of the event.
Here are the full IAAF Competition Rules 2016-2017.
Why don’t lapped runners move?
Many will view the fact that the lapped runners not moving out of the way is a very selfish thing to do. They put other, better runners’ races at risk whilst all they do is try and take the shortest route for themselves. However, from the lapped runners’ perspective it is understandable why they would not want to move from lane 1.
If you were to run an entire lap in lane 2 of an athletics track, you would be running 407.67m, 7.67m further than if you took the shortest line. If the 10,000m men’s runners are running at world record pace (26:17.53) and run the equivalent of 1/25 of the race in lane 2 then it would take 1.21 seconds to run the extra 7.67m distance. This difference would have separated 1st and 4th at the 2016 Rio Olympics and is of a considerable margin.
This extra time is something which would be of notice to both the lapped runners and the runners at the front. From the top runners’ perspective, you wouldn’t want to lose this time because of the possibility of losing out on medals, but also it would affect the own personal races of the lapped runners.
Being a runner in any type of race, whether it be a championship or a fun run, you always want to run to the best of your ability to achieve the best time. Therefore, these runners who seem to be miles behind the leaders at the front don’t want to have their races affected either. Despite being at the back, they will stile aiming for their best time and position which would be affected in equal amounts by having to constantly move out and weave from lane to lane so they do not affect the top runners.
This extra running they would do in the user lanes would inevitably cost them time from the extra distance. However, it comes down to each persons viewpoint and take on the significance of their race. Obviously the lapped runner will still want to run on the inside, taking the shortest route with the aim to achieve their own PB. But from a spectators perspective these lapped runners are affecting the outcome of the leaders’ race and therefore it is unfair for them not to move out as they are only contending for the minor positions in the race.
How could this be solved?
As his continues to pose a problem in major championship races, I believe it is something which should be looked at by the IAAF and Seb Coe when it comes to making amendments to the competition rules.
I have given this issue some thought and believe that there is a possibility adopting a system in the 10,000m races which deals with lapped runners. This is a system which takes inspiration from both Garmin’s Varia Bike Radar System and the Formula 1 flag system.
Firstly, this system would include an obligatory rule that ‘All lapped runners should move into the outer lanes to allow for faster runners to overtake on the inside.’
Depending on how technology improves vs the amount of man power available, there could be either an automatic or manual system of notifying lapped runners of the faster runners approaching from behind. This system would take note that the lapped runners are about to be caught within the next 10 seconds or so and would then therefore notify the runners that they should start to move into the outer lanes.
With a manual approach that could be taken with officials at the end of every 100m section of the track; they can notify the lapped runners through a flag system that they are about to be overtaken, this is very similar to how it currently works with the Formula 1 flag system.
The blue flag warns a driver that he is about to be lapped and to let the faster car overtake.
On the other hand, the technology is already moving at a pace fast enough to allow for an electronic system to be put in place to notify the lapped runners without the need for the employment of extra officials waving a flag aimlessly. An automatic system of this kind would be very similar to the new Garmin Varia which tracks incoming vehicle which are about to overtake and subsequently notifies the rider.
The runners could wear a form of trading device which can detect an obstacle (faster runners) approaching and then notifies the runner that they should move out accordingly to allow them to pass. They can be notified potentially through the screen on the infield which most large stadiums used in Championship races already have. These could therefore display a form of traffic light system allowing the runners to be easily informed.
This obviously isn’t the easiest system to implement and would come at a substantial cost, however as technology improves it could be used effectively to help improve the race as a whole.
For now however as it is a pressing issue which affects races on numerous occasions, the manual flag system can be implemented by track officials along with the new rules which make the situation clearer to lapped runners. This would improve the race for the runners at the front and for spectators who no longer have to suffer the stress of nervously watching the bas runners in the world risk their race outcome by overtaking selfish, slower runners.