False start

In sports, a false start is a movement by a participant before (or in some cases after) being signaled or otherwise permitted by the rules to start. Depending on the sport and the event, a false start can result in a penalty against the athlete's or team's field position, a warning that a subsequent false start will result in disqualification, or immediate disqualification of the athlete from further competition.

False starts are common in racing sports (such as swimming, track, sprinting, and motor sports), where differences are made by fractions of a second and where anxiety to get the best start plays a role in the athletes' behavior.

A race that is started cleanly, on the contrary, is referred to as a fair start or clean start.

In sports

American and Canadian football

In American football and Canadian football, a false start is movement by an offensive player (other than the center) after he has taken a set position. For offensive linemen, this movement might be as minimal as a couple of centimeters, although the rule's intent is to prevent offensive players from unfairly drawing the defense offside. A false start brings a 5 yard penalty. Unlike an offside penalty, where the play is run as usual, the play after a false start penalty immediately becomes dead. This is done to prevent a defensive player reacting to a false start from hitting the quarterback while he is going through the snap count, which would make the quarterback more susceptible to injury.

At the end of the 2005 NFL season, owners complained regarding false start penalties on players whose flinches have little effect upon the start of the play, such as wide receivers. In response, the NFL competition committee has said that they plan to inflict fewer false start penalties on players who line up behind the line of scrimmage.[1]

Athletics (track and field)

In track and field sprints, the sport's governing body, the IAAF, has a rule that if the athlete moves within 0.1 seconds AFTER the gun has fired the athlete has false-started.[2] This figure is based on tests that show the human brain cannot hear and process the information from the start sound in under 0.10 seconds.[3] This rule is only applied at high-level meets where fully automated force or motion sensor devices are built into the starting blocks that are tied via computer with the starter's gun. In the vast majority of lower-level meets, false starts are determined visually by the officials.

Currently (2016), if there is a false start, they are signalled by firing the starting gun twice. The race is stopped and the offending athletes are immediately disqualified.[4] Before 2003, an athlete making a false start would be allowed another start and would only be disqualified after a second false start.[5] Between 2003 and 2009 (inclusive), if there was a single false start, then the whole field would be warned, and the original offender would be allowed a second start. If anyone made a false start on the second start, then they would be disqualified (even if they did not false start the first time).

An analysis of start times by sprinters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics demonstrated that male and female sprinters can achieve reaction times of 109 and 121 ms in one out of 1,000 starts.[6] The same analysis showed fewer false starts among the women and it suggests that the apparent sex difference is caused by the use of the same starting block force threshold for males and females. The authors calculated that were the force threshold to be reduced by 22% for females, to take into account their lower rate of developing muscle strength, then males and females would exhibit similar reaction times and numbers of false starts.

Horse racing

In thoroughbred horse racing, a false start occurs when a horse breaks through the starting gates before they open. There is usually no penalty; the horse is simply reloaded into the gate. In some events, a horse who breaks through the starting gates is disqualified. A notable example was the 2006 Preakness Stakes when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke through the gate early; he was reloaded and the race was started properly. The 1993 Grand National was void because the recall flag to signal a false start was not unfurled, so that most jockeys continued to race.[7]

Ice hockey

In ice hockey, a false start occurs when a team commits a faceoff violation. When this occurs, the player taking the face-off from the offending team is disqualified from the face-off and replaced by a teammate. A second faceoff violation by the same team results in a minor penalty.


In motor sports that have a standing start (e.g. Formula One), if there is a false start then the offender is subject to a time penalty and the race is normally not restarted.


In sailing, the race committee decides at the preparatory signal (usually 4 minutes before the start) what the rules on false starting will be by display the P, I, Z or Black Flags.

A P Flag means any boat on the course side (OCS) of the start line at the starting signal must return, clear the start line and then restart. The I Flag means a boat which is OCS must round either end of the start line by coming back to the pre-start side and then restarting (the 'round the ends' rule). The Z Flag means a boat which is OCS in the minute leading up to the start or at the start itself is given a 20% scoring penalty. The Black Flag means a boat which is OCS in the minute leading up to the start or at the start itself is disqualified.

Failing to return to start correctly under the P or I Flag rules means the boat is scored O.C.S and receives points equivalent to disqualification.


In swimming, any swimmer who starts before the starting signal is given an automatic disqualification.[8] If a step-down command is given before the race starts, the swimmer is not disqualified.

A notable example during the 2008 Olympics occurred when Pang Jiaying was disqualified due to a false start. This allowed Libby Trickett to advance to the final round, in which she won a silver medal.

At the 2012 London Olympics, Chinese swimmer Sun Yang jumped into the water too early in the 1500m final, but was not judged to have false started because Sun Yang misunderstood 'stand please' as beeping sound by the article 101.1 0.3 D. A similar incident occurred in the women's 100m breaststroke final.

In entertainment

In a live musical performance, a false start is an intro to a song that is quickly cut short to begin another song. One famous example is Elvis Costello playing "Radio Radio" on a television broadcast of Saturday Night Live.

False starts, mistakes, or imitations of such, are occasionally included by musicians on finalised albums. The Beatles' songs "Dig a Pony" and the North American version of "I'm Looking Through You" include them. Electric Light Orchestra's "Rockaria!", Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)", "Old Time Rock and Roll" by Bob Seger, "Better Man" by Pearl Jam, "Tangerine" by Led Zeppelin, "Wrong 'Em Boyo" by The Clash, Monkees song "Magnolia Simms", James Blunt's song "You're Beautiful," and "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" by The Smiths are other examples, as well as "I Need A Lover" by John Cougar Mellencamp. In a YouTube episode of "Minutes with Murray", Murray Cook from The Wiggles played two false starts on the Maton electric guitar while playing "Eagle Rock".


  1. "NFL Concerned with perception of officiating". Yahoo Sports. March 22, 2006. Archived from the original on 2011-05-22.
  2. 2008 IAAF Rule Book Archived 2009-04-25 at WebCite - Chapter 5, Rule 161 Part 2
  3. "Reaction times & false starts in sprints". Condellpark.com. 2002-09-21. Retrieved 2011-04-24.
  4. "IAAF sanctions immediate disqualification for false starts come January". The Daily Telegraph. London. August 12, 2009. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  5. Wells, Allan (2003-01-16). "New Sprint rule well received". BBC News. Retrieved 2011-04-24.
  6. Lipps, D.B., Galecki, A.T. and Ashton-Miller, J.A. On the Implications of a Sex Difference in the Reaction Times of Sprinters at the Beijing Olympics. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26141. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026141. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0026141
  7. Lister, David (15 June 1993). "Officers, gentlemen and a Grand National flag chap". The Independent. Retrieved 8 August 2012.
  8. "FINA rule SW 4.4". Fina.org. 2009-09-23. Archived from the original on 2013-07-26. Retrieved 2011-04-24.
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