x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The run-off that had no legs

The US athletics tried to spin the race for the third spot in the 100 metre team into a media event, but they could not keep it on track.

Jeneba Tarmoh, left, and Allyson Felix finished in a dead heat last week.
Jeneba Tarmoh, left, and Allyson Felix finished in a dead heat last week.

What a bizarre, intriguing and dramatic sports moment it would have been, sweetened all the more by its improvised nature. An oddly flavoured nightcap to 12 scrumptious days of US Olympic trials in track and field, gymnastics and swimming.

Match race.

The two words suggest competition that is impromptu and organic, remindful of a playground challenge. I'm better than you. Then, prove it. OK, head-to-head.

So, on Monday, with American Olympic-niks still breathless over the Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin pool party, Ashton Eaton's out-of-this-world decathlon record, and Gabby "Flying Squirrel" Douglas's breakthrough on the balance beam, the sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh would stage the ultimate blink-or-you'll-miss-it event: 100 meters, start to finish in 11 seconds.

The US track federation was excited about turning its own blunder into a publicity bonanza. The network televising the final round of swimming planned to cut away for special coverage.

Nine days earlier, Felix and Tarmoh had crossed the line simultaneously. The photo finish judge had declared Tarmoh's torso a smidgen ahead. Tarmoh had completed a victory lap - victory in the sense that, by placing third, she was bound for her first Olympics, ahead of the veteran Felix.

Simple, right?

Not exactly. The judge essentially decided to appeal his own call by seeking a second opinion. He was overruled. The overriding verdict: a tie.

Then the federation noticed that - oops! - it had no policy for dealing with dead heats at its Olympic trials.

A day later, the runners were presented a choice: duel on the track or flip a coin.

A week passed without a resolution. Ultra-fast on the track, they were super-slow in negotiations.

Perhaps they could let a coin flip decide which option to choose. Heads, we race. Tails, another flip.

This dilemma might have been escapable if the sprinters were not pals and training partners who share a coach. Ingrained in athletes is reaching decisions based on self-interest. These two were conflicted, if slightly, out of concern for each other.

Also, they were consumed by their other event, the 200m, which would not be completed until Sunday, the last day of the meet. Their coach lobbied the federation to defer adjudication until then.

"No", was the response, calling for an answer sooner because, the federation said, the team list had to be submitted immediately after the trials. Thus, the federation displayed an ignorance of existing rules - the deadline is not until tomorrow - besides its own inexcusable failure to have a rule in place on breaking ties.

Suddenly it dawned on the federation: Let's tell Felix and Tarmoh that, while this is totally your call, we would really, really prefer a run-off. Think of the media coverage, the TV ratings, the public interest.

Both agreed: Felix willingly, Jarmoh reluctantly.

Then, Jarmoh, blaming a tired body from three rounds of the 200, got cold feet and pulled out eight hours before show time, ceding the spot to Felix.

OK, Jarmoh was a party-pooper, spoiling the fun. Yet she deserves a break today, being 22, fresh out of college, going from anonymity to newsmaker overnight.

Her fatigue could be attributed more to the weight of a tough decision bearing down on her.

The biggest losers? US track authorities, who were bitten by karma when they tried to spin straw into gold.

For having no tie-breaker procedure in writing, whether a coin toss or run-off, who gives a flip about them?


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