Allyson Felix in the 2008 Olympic trials. Photo courtesy of Sawyerlaw.
Written by Hannah Borenstein
Track and field is a sport known for the clarity of their results. Regardless of whether it makes for better or worse entertainment to some, modern photography affords the luxury of determining race winners as no matter for dispute down to thousandths of a second. That is, until an Olympics trials race for the U.S. Track and Field team that took place in Eugene, Oregon on Saturday, June 23rd.
Roger Jennings, the photo finish judge of the Women’s 100-meter dash could not make the distinction between which torso, that of two-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix or Jeneba Tarmoh, crossed the finish line plane first. The technology reads up to 3,000 frames per second, but as the soon-to-be emblematic photo reveals, they finished in a dead heat even by that measure.
Former Track and Field coach Brooks Johnson, who is in Eugene for the trials and is subsequently immersed in the aftermath of the issue, sees the result as hype more than anything else. “It probably makes good news, but it doesn’t make good sense,” he says.
Most publications have been criticizing the USATF’s preparedness in dealing with these circumstances. After announcing on Sunday that the athletes “will be given the option to determine the tie-breaker via coin toss or by run-off,” bloggers scoffed at the notion of deciding the winner of a race by the flip of a coin.
Justin Gatlin, who won the male 100-meter race last week spoke with ESPN about the issue and couldn’t fathom the outcome of a race being decided by a coin toss. “To run the 100-meter final at the Olympic trials and for it to be decided on a coin toss? It blows my mind,” he said.
When we think of the competitive mindset athletes possess, figuring out the Olympic roster by a game of chance seems utterly ridiculous. But as Brooks notes, the idea that the decision to deal with the circumstances comes from solely the athletes, is in large part an illusion.
The verdict comes down to coaching. And in this particular case, the only debates will be internal. Bobby Kersee is the coach of both Felix and Tarmoh.
“I was having dinner with Bobby [Kersee] that night,” Johnson says. “What he said was that nothing should happen until the 200 meters are done. If Allyson Felix makes the 200, he’s not going to run her in the 100 if she’s not going to medal. He’s just not going to.”
Johnson, who has coached sprinters for over 50 years, is not belittling the accomplishment of making the Olympic team, but when it really comes down to it, he sees winning at the Olympic games as the ultimate goal. And considering this is only the qualification for one country’s team, albeit a fast one, Tarmoh and Felix’s chances of medaling in the 100-meter dash at the Olympics are still rather slim.
“People are not sophisticated enough to know what’s going on,” Johnson says. “A good friend of mine says if you’re not in the huddle you don’t know the play.”
“This comes down to a thousandth of a second. I mean it’s a phony issue. The coach is going to ultimately make that decision. When they get to London, it’s going to be obvious why the decision was what it was.”
Both Felix and Tarmoh will again face off amongst others in the 200-meter dash, beginning with this evening’s prelims. The results of the race are likely to shape the outcome of which runner will head to London as an alternate for the 100-meter dash, but in either case, there will be only one name on the roster by Sunday.
Kersee stated in an interview with Sports Illustrated that he wants to see what happens in the 200 meter race first. “Then we’ll meet as a group, we’ll meet with USA Track and Field,” he said. “I will be in the room on the meeting, but I will have no decision-making power. I’m going to be listening, but let the athletes decide. Let the managers decide what they want to do – I want the best for the athletes.”
The sport of Track and Field has probably seen few, if any, results with this much grey area, which makes it more understandable that people are confused and distraught over the methodology of determining a winner. Winning the 100-meter dash is a reward following pure, intense, and whole exertion. And the athletes are fierce competitors and will likely be disinterested in mediating the outcome by tossing a coin.
But as Johnson’s experienced perspective on the situation indicated, the conclusion of the entire debacle will be under Kersee’s guise, even if the athlete’s do have a say.