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Copyright 2014 Charleston Newspapers
Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)
Mitch Vingle

SINCE THE start of the Gazette Relays last week, controversy has been bubbling within state high school sports circles.

It centered on a Capital High track athlete and a starter pistol.

See, the former can't hear the latter. And there was a question whether Naquay Little, who has been deaf since birth, would be able to use a strobe starter in the upcoming regional and state track events.

There was real concern the Secondary School Activities Commission might ban a device that not only signals a start for hearing runners, but flashes light for Little.

What seems like an easy call was amazingly complicated.

On Tuesday, however, outrage was averted. Lawsuits were avoided.

SSAC executive director Gary Ray did so with this simple statement: "We're going to use an electronic device for the boys Region 3 and Class AAA state 100- and 200-meter events.

A no-brainer decision, right? The kid can't hear. There's a device that takes care of starting him and the other runners. Done and done, correct?

Not really.

See, behind the scenes for the last few days there has been consternation. There have been meetings, phone calls and much discussion on the topic. A caller to my desk claimed there could be discrimination involved. Even Capital High track coach Willie Ruffin was concerned and brought up the Americans with Disabilities Act to me.

"Lawyers will be lining up [if accommodations aren't made], Ruffin said.

The controversy, however, went back to what is called "The Golden Rule for Track Officials, as published by the USA Track and Field National Officials Committee. Says it: "No athlete should be allowed to gain an unfair advantage, and no athlete should have to suffer an unfair advantage.

There was some belief that by switching out the traditional starter pistol, complete with black powder shells, for the different-sounding strobe-lighting starter would give Little an advantage. Hey, they said, kids from all over will be hitting Charleston and having to adjust their sprint start for the first time in the state meet? They'll have to do so in races that come down to fractions of a second?

"It's a different sound, Ruffin said, "but if any of those kids go on to college it's what they'll hear.

By all accounts, the sound is like that used in Olympic swim events. It's like that automated beep sound that sends swimmers into water.

Is that different than the cannon our Dave Hickman uses as a high school track starter? Yes. Is it different enough that it will throw off hearing runners? Not according to Ray and others.

"The request was made, Ray said, "and we feel it was an appropriate request.

The system, you should know, has been used in all of Capital High's track meets this season. It was purchased via a grant from the Kanawha County Board of Education, according to Ruffin. So those in the Kanawha Valley are used to it.

"I haven't heard any complaints from any of the kids, said George Washington High track coach Sean Wheeler. "I did, though, hear complaints from some of the coaches. They said they had trouble hearing the sound and couldn't see the smoke from the gun to start their stopwatches.

To that I say oh, well. Figure it out, guys. Wheeler said he personally likes the Capital High starter and believes it will soon replace the pistols.

The other complaint was the SSAC didn't even know about the Capital device until recently. The school, it was claimed, simply started using it without checking with the SSAC.

"They knew about it, Ruffin countered. "We talked about it at a clinic before the first meet.

Wheeler backed that up by recalling the topic in an SSAC "Games Committee meeting.

Whatever the case, Ray made the right call. There was talk the track official could fire off both the regular pistol and the strobe at the same time. That, however, brings into question how much slack is in each trigger and if there's even the slightest delay in one.

This indeed is the way to go. Simply pull the sprinters involved in Little's races to the side and allow them to hear the sound a few times. Then go.

"It works, Ruffin said. "Heck, back in 1914 when they had [the state meet] they used to start with a whistle.

Ray, by the way, said he couldn't find another state that is using the strobe device.

"I made some calls, he said. "After the third one, I just decided to say the heck with it' and do what's right for West Virginia.

As for the claims runners might be thrown off-balance by the new sound?

"Kids adjust, Ray said. "And what I've found is they adjust much better than adults.

Well said.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, or follow him at


May 7, 2014




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