Dead Heat: How the U.S. Track And Field Trials Got All Muddled

Will a coin toss, runoff, or a new twist - rock-paper-scissors! - break the Allyson Felix-Jeneba Tarmoh tie in the women's 100 meters?

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First, some numbers.


Those are the number of words on the books explaining tie-breaking procedures for, respectively, Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, and U.S. Olympic sprinting (The baseball word count may have changed now that the playoffs will expand this year, but you see the point). As the U.S. Olympic trials head into their second weekend in Eugene, Ore., one question lurks over the event: how, and when, are U.S. sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh going to determine who races in the 100 meters in London?

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Last Saturday, Felix and Tarmoh finished in a dead heat for the third and final U.S. spot in that event. Somehow, U.S.A. Track and Field (USATF) did not have procedures in place to immediately break the deadlock. Most sports have contingencies for every kind of odd finish. Baseball, for example, has rules for breaking four-way ties for a division championship.

“The Commissioner shall supervise a draw that results in the Clubs’ being designated Club “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D” for purposes of Rule 33(c)(1)(C)(ii). Club “B” shall play one game at the ballpark of Club “A.” Club “D” shall play one game at the ballpark of Club “C.”  Each of these two games shall be played on the day after the conclusion of the championship season as originally scheduled … “

And on and on.

Yet, track and field had no contingency for a two-way tie between sprinters in a 100-meter race, where competitors can be separated by nanoseconds. Sure, dead heats are rare, especially with advanced photo-finish technology available for officials. But they’re not beyond the realm of possibility.

A runoff is the obvious solution. The rules, however, should have stated that it occur right away, or the next day, at the latest. Dragging this out is just silly. The coach for both sprinters, Bob Kersee, has insisted that any runoff takes place after Saturday evening; the 200-meter finals are that night. Both Felix and Tarmoh and running in the 200, and it’s Felix’s best event — she has won three world championship golds, and two Olympic silvers, in the 200. He argued that an earlier runoff would disrupt their training for the 200.

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But no one forced these athletes to try to qualify for both the 100 and 200. Such unexpected developments are part of the game. Stuff happens. If a 200-meter sprinter, say, got sick in the middle of this week — a misfortune that would muck with her training regiment and put her at a disadvantage for Saturday night’s race — no coach would argue that the start should be pushed back a day. The train leaves when the train leaves. And if U.S. track and field had fair, sensible rules on the books, the 100-meter runoff train would have departed days ago.

Instead, track officials huddled up and created rules on the fly (word count: 598). Here is the key section:

– If either athlete declines his or her position on the National Team/Olympic Team, that athlete will be named the alternate and the other athlete will assume the final available position.

– If neither athlete declines their position, they will be given the option to determine the tie-breaker via coin toss or by run-off.

a. If both athletes choose the same option, that option will be utilized as the tie-breaker.

b. If the athletes disagree on the tie-breaker, the tie will be broken by a run-off.

c. If both athletes refuse to declare a preference regarding the method between a run-off and coin toss in regards to how the tie is broken, the tie will be broken by coin toss.

Apparently, USATF settled on game theory.

The tie must be settled by Sunday evening, before the conclusion of the trials. Most likely, a Felix vs Tarmoh runoff will be the last race of the trials, and that theater should be top-notch. Or we’ll be treated to a high-stakes coin toss, which would stink. Rock-paper-scissors is way more fun.

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