So let’s get this straight. The women’s 100 meters took about 11 seconds Saturday at the Olympic track and field trials. But it may take the rest of the week or longer to decide who competes in London.
USA Track and Field, the dysfunctional national governing body, had one small problem with its rule book. No one thought to include a provision for what happens if two runners finish in a dead heat for third place when the last Olympic qualifying spot is at stake. How could this be? Such a rule seems as fundamental as the pole to the pole vault.
To recap: Jeneba Tarmoh was initially declared the third-place finisher in the 100 by one-thousandth of a second over Allyson Felix. Tarmoh smiled and waved a flag as if watching a fire truck roll past on the Fourth of July. Both sprinters met with reporters in Eugene, Ore. Tarmoh expressed her elation, Felix her disappointment.
Then, wait a minute! A review of finish-line photographs found something less determinate. Tarmoh and Felix, it was now said, had chested across the line at the exact same moment. There was more talk about torsos than the average episode of “CSI: Miami.”
After the fact, in secret, the track federation implemented a new rule. Now the matter will be settled by a coin flip or a runoff. Or by the one who phrases her answers in the form of a question.
No one should be surprised that USA Track and Field botched this race and embarrassed both sprinters. As has often been said since Saturday, the only amateurs left in Olympic sports are the officials running them.
Such federations are governed by the Amateur Sports Act, established in 1978 and revised in 1998. The title alone betrays anachronism. While Olympic athletes have long been professionals, many officials running these governing bodies remain volunteers. They are well meaning but ill equipped to handle controversy, motivated by petty fiefs and mortally afraid of lawsuits.
We have seen this before, specifically on Jan. 6, 1994. It was the day Nancy Kerrigan was knee-whacked by associates of Tonya Harding. At first, American figure skating officials said that Kerrigan would be ineligible for the Lillehammer Olympics in Norway because she could not participate in the national championships. The fact that it became impossible to land a double axel after being hit with a collapsible police baton did not matter.
Hours later, the skating federation found — or had the good sense to invent — a rule that restored Kerrigan’s Olympic eligibility. But afraid of being sued, the federation dithered for weeks, then relented and allowed Harding to compete at the Games. Kerrigan went on to win a silver medal, while Harding went on to claim that she had been stalked by pro golfers.
The track federation shows similar fear and incapacity. It has put the burden on the athletes to make a choice — coin toss or runoff. If they disagree on the method, a runoff will break the tie. If they do not declare a preference, a coin toss will decide the winner. It’s also possible that one will step aside for the other. In its passive-aggressive manner, USA Track and Field wants an answer by Sunday, the last day of the trials.
But why should Tarmoh and Felix have to adhere to that arbitrary schedule? Both are also competing in the 200 meters. What if one is injured? How could she be expected to rerace the 100? What if one falters earlier than the other in the 200 heats and is thus fresher for the 100 runoff? What if associates of Harding show up with a collapsible police baton?
Writing the rules for the coin toss appears to have been outsourced to the I.R.S. The coin will be a “United States Quarter Dollar coin with the image of George Washington appearing on the obverse hub of the coin and an Eagle appearing on the reverse hub of the coin.”
Can the Eagle be Michael Vick?
Before tossing the coin, a representative from the track federation “shall bend his or her index finger at a 90-degree angle to his or her thumb, allowing the coin to rest on his or her thumb.”
What if his or her index finger is bent only to 87 degrees? Will somebody break out the official protractor of the Summer Olympics?
Justin Gatlin, winner of the men’s 100 at the trials, has suggested a more exotic if sexist solution: Jell-O wrestling. I have another plan. Listen up NBC. Here’s an idea for cross-platform promotion. Send Tarmoh and Felix to the Olympic swimming trials. First one to reach the wall in the 100 freestyle goes to London.
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