Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad is a steeplechaser. His crime was to remove his shirt whilst completing the last part of the race, including one hurdle. He was initially shown a yellow card before being disqualified. One reason for the rule - and I’ll touch on others - is the need to correctly identify the runner; and the shirt carries the number.
I have been an official at fun runs and been annoyed that a runner has pinned their number to the back of their vest - despite the clear written instructions to the contrary. I had no means, nor desire, to punish them and the ‘karmic’ punishment was that they might fail to appear in the official results.
I was astonished to see him strip his vest off as I knew this endangered his medal but after the antics of Cooly the official mascot - of whom they seem quite proud - thought it would end at the yellow card.
Interestingly the mainstream media have covered it extensively but you have to search on his name on the websites of: Athletics Weekly and European Athletics where the news is buried in reports of the whole evening. Thus we eventually find on the EA site, this report:
There was more shock and surprise at the end of the evening as the disqualification was announced of France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad from what would have been his third consecutive European gold in the 3000m steeplechase.
The Frenchman removed his shirt as he rounded the final bend and encouraged the crowd to respond with upward hand gestures before jamming the shirt into his mouth and clearing the final barrier to finish well clear of the field 8:25.30.
His celebrations all the way down the finishing straight infringed the IAAF rule 125.5 concerning “acting in an unsporting or improper manner”, and he received a yellow card for this from a track official before he started his lap of honour.
But his victory was annulled after a successful application from Spain, whose athletes finished fourth and fifth, to the Jury of Appeal citing IAAF Rules 143.1, 143.7, relating to “clothing, shoes and bibs”. A French counter-claim was dismissed.
Whilst running nude might have been the classical Olympic way (and I am pleased to remember my old colleague Stephen Instone here) the desire to avoid mechanical inefficiency and the gasps of the prudes means we now have somewhere to put our numbers. Though the growing use of micro chips to record times in mass participation races may remove that use for clothes. This, and the increasing use of self-tracking apps like Map My Run and Garmin, brings us into the territory of Surveillance Studies.
It would be nice to think the IAAF’s rules were some nod to feminism, ensuring that men be subject to the same restrictions as women. When she took off her top in celebration for ‘winning’ the USA the Women's’ World Cup in 1999 Brandi Chastain became ‘iconic’. Now it is routine for such celebrations to receive a yellow card.
And it is to such penalties we return. Some commentators accuse Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad of ‘preposterous showboating’ (@oliverbrown_tel in the Daily Telegraph) and IAAF Rule 125.5 like many similar rules in sport goes beyond the law of the land in insisting on a higher and subjective standard. We may tut at the improper or unsporting behaviour of our friends and enemies alike but rightly cannot sanction officially sanction them.
If there is any ‘preposterous showboating’ it is by the athletic authorities in punishing such low hanging fruit when they can’t sort out doping or corruption.
In policing/criminology there is a set of theories known as Zero Tolerance or Broken Windows. Not quite same but essentially it argues for crackdowns on minor infringements to prevent major ones. Other criminologists argue that such punitiveness is counter-productive and triggers a cycle of crime and punishment that does not address the original issue.
I had hoped that Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad might have been making a political point - even if I’d not agreed with him - akin to the now acclaimed Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
But no; Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad is not the Devil he’s just a naughty boy!
This blogpost might be seen as a taster/first draft of Chapter 6 (Sport, Justice and Social Control) of my book on Sports Criminology to be published by Policy Press in time for the 2016 Rio Olympics. I’m not expecting an invite from the International Olympic Committee anytime soon.