Felix-vs.-Tarmoh Dead Heat: Why Track’s Big Night … Went Kaput

As the last minute, Jeneba Tarmoh backed out of her prime-time duel with Allyson Felix. How the runoff veered off course

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Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Allyson Felix, right, wins the women's 200 meters final ahead of Jeneba Tarmoh at the U.S. Olympic athletics trials in Eugene, Oregon, June 30, 2012.

At least there’d be a runoff. Since June 23, the night U.S. sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh finished their Olympic trials race in a dead heat for the third, and final, spot on the 100-meter Olympic team, that was the hope. After Tarmoh ran a victory lap following the 100-m final – the scoreboard said she finished third; after USA Track and Field overruled the interpretation of the photo finish judge and called it a dead heat; after USA Track and Field then announced it had no procedures on the books to break a tie; after USA Track and Field made up a tiebreaker on the fly, one that included a coin toss option; after the whole debacle, fans would at least be treated to an unprecedented prime-time duel, scheduled for Monday night, to determine the rightful winner. Felix vs. Tarmoh, with the Olympics on the line. It would have been pretty cool.

Except that Tarmoh got cold feet. She pulled out of the runoff Monday morning, ceding her 100-m spot to Felix. At first, the decision seemed dumbfounding. Here Tarmoh had what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make the Olympics, and she did not want to run for 11 more seconds? She had already agreed to the runoff on Sunday. Why the change of mind?

But when you hear Tarmoh explain herself, the decision makes more sense. First off, she was drained, both physically and emotionally. Give Felix, coming off a first-place, personal-best 21.69 second performance in the 200-m final Saturday night, credit for being ready for a runoff. Tarmoh, who also ran that 200-meters and finished fifth, just didn’t have it in her. As Tarmoh told NBCOlympics.com: “I don’t believe that I would have been at my best if I went out there.” That’s no mindset for an Olympic-level race.

(MORE: Dead Heat – How The U.S. Track And Field Trials Got All Muddled)

Second, Tarmoh now has the moral high ground. On Sunday night, she told the Associated Press that she felt “robbed.” On June 26, an SI.com article by veteran track and field writer Tim Layden revealed that Roger Jennings, the man who originally called Felix the winner after carefully viewing the photo finish, had an obstructed view of Tarmoh’s torso. In track, first torso to the line wins. Yet, he interpolated where Tarmoh’s torso would have been at the line – based on solid information – and seemed fairly confident Tarmoh won the race by a thousandth of a second. The key section:

Jennings said, “In the end, my read was subjective. The involvement of the torso is always subjective to some degree. They (USATF) went with what they could actually see. I was overruled, and I certainly signed off on their decision. But I did my job. I called what I saw. I try to stay consistent. If I went back and read that photo 100 times, I would call it the same way every time.” (That is, he would call Tarmoh the winner, based on an interpolation of where her torso was at the finish).

Participating in a runoff would have been a tacit acknowledgment that the race was a tie. Tarmoh didn’t agree with that result (though she backed off, slightly, the “robbed” characterization Monday in her NBCOlympics.com interview: “I wouldn’t call it robbed. I felt like I couldn’t really experience my joy.”) Some of Tarmoh’s surrogates are furious, and convinced that track’s higher-ups overruled Jennings because they wanted Felix in the 100-meter race. After all, Felix’s race for two golds – in the 100-meters and 200-meters – is a hot storyline for London. “I’m pissed off,” says Steve Nelson, who coached Tarmoh at Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose, Calif. and remains in touch with his star pupil. “I think she’s getting ramrodded because she’s not Allyson Felix.”

If Tarmoh agrees with Nelson’s sentiment, she’s not letting it on publicly. Tarmoh says she and Felix, her training partner, are still friends. And USA Track and Field denies it favored Felix. “The identities of the runners were irrelevant to the rank order of finish and proper protocols were followed,” Jill Geer, spokeswoman for USA Track and Field, writes an email. “The photo-finish image speaks for itself. USATF worked closely with the athletes to determine a fair tiebreaker. It is unfortunate that Ms. Tarmoh had a change of heart, but everyone involved worked earnestly and honestly to resolve the tie fairly.”

The problem: no work should have been needed. It was the confusion, and the uncertainty, of the situation that weighted on the athletes, and tested the patience of fans. “I think if they had probably had procedures for dead heats before this track meet and before we ran the finals, it would have been easier on Allyson and I,” Tarmoh told NBCOlympics.com. For track, these are devastating words. This was a mess of the sport’s own making.

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