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A case in point is the women's 100-meter finals Sunday at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon. Two sprinters, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh, finished in a dead heat for third. And that's a problem, because only the top three finishers make the U.S. Olympics team. So somehow, sometime, the tie must be broken.
The Tribune's Philip Hersh, reporting from Eugene, let himself be highly vexed by the irresolution. He wrote, "Even if the situation . . . is apparently unprecedented, the fact that officials never foresaw it, quickly botched it and dithered over resolving it seemed once again to underline the sad truth that the only amateurs left in Olympic sports are those who run them."
He compared the unresolved deadlock between Felix and Tarmoh unfavorably to the Italy-England soccer match Sunday in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals. The two nations remained scoreless after 120 minutes of play, but then Italy prevailed on penalty kicks.
Wham bam, thank you tie-breaker.
It'll probably be days before we know whether Felix or Tarmoh gets to run the 100 meters in the London Games.
"The likeliest outcome" is a runoff race, reports Hersh. The other option is a coin flip—if both sprinters prefer it or neither states a preference. But they have until Saturday afternoon, after the 200-meters finals, to decide. This favors Felix, in Hersh's view, because the 200 is her strongest and primary event (she won the silver medal in Beijing), and if she makes the U.S. team in the 200 she'd be free to cede the contested spot in the 100 to Tarmoh if she chose. To "exercise noblesse oblige," as Hersh puts it, as if there's something wrong with that.
Of course, Tarmoh could be the one exercising noblesse oblige if she finishes third or better in the 200 meters and Felix doesn't. But Hersh drops hints throughout his story that this episode could easily be construed as an attempt to help Felix, "one of U.S. track's stars," get to London—not that he thinks that himself!
Hersh doesn't say how he thinks the tie should have been resolved right there on the spot. One way, I guess, would have been to give the two sprinters 30 minutes to catch their breath and then send them back out on the track for a redo. Another way would have been to give third to the sprinter who turned in the faster time in the prelims. Neither alternative seems to me any more half-assed than penalty kicks. But bear in mind that penalty kicks are considered such a preposterous way to determine the winner and loser of a soccer match that in fact they don't—those games formally enter the books as ties.
Soccer can't help it—without penalty kicks some games would go on forever. But Hersh might be the first sportswriter in history to suggest soccer's tiebreaker is something for other sports to emulate.
Here, in fact, is the New Yorker's Nicholas Thompson asserting exactly the opposite: When Felix and Tarmoh run their match race, he writes (he doesn't doubt that they will), "we’ll get to see the purest competition you could have: two runners, with no one else on the track, going full out, with everything at stake. That would be a much, much better way to settle a tie than what’s used in some other sports."
Guess what other sport Thompson has in mind. Clue: his piece is titled "Will Track Show Soccer How to Break a Tie?" Second clue: he links to the AP account of the Italy-England match.
Hersh never makes it clear what harm he thinks is being done by having the world wait a few days to find out who prevails between Felix and Tarmoh. He allows that the officials found themselves with a problem on their hands that was "apparently unprecedented." Given cameras that shoot the finish at 3,000 frames a second, I'd say it's a problem that was also almost unimaginable. And because a tie in track and field can normally be dealt with by issuing duplicate medals, it's usually not even a problem.
This time it is. Big deal. Hersh reaches back to 1984, when the women's 100-meter hurdles finals at the U.S. Olympic trials ended in an apparent four-way dead heat for first. And only three women could go to the Olympics! The odd woman out was Stephanie Hightower, who today is president of U.S. Track & Field.
"That took about 30 minutes to resolve," Hersh writes reproachfully. So how did they do it in 1984?
They did it the same way they tried to do it Sunday. They looked at photos of the finish.
The New York Times reported in 1984:
Daniel LaMare of Swiss Timing, the chief of the photo-finish panel, said he had judged more than 10,000 races since 1960. This, he said, was the closest.
''I was sure immediately from the negative about the order,'' he said, ''but we waited for 10 minutes to get the picture from the other side. It was very, very close, but the results were correct.''
Mamie Rallins, who coaches Miss Hightower, inspected the official photograph and filed a written protest. Officials reinspected the photograph and stood by their order of finish.
''I don't know how they came up with that,'' said Miss Rallins. ''I couldn't see the difference between third and fourth.''
"You would think that after the fiasco involving me in 1984, there would be a procedure in place," said Hightower Sunday. But even from her singular point of view, considerable progress has been made. In 1984 the officials apparently stared at the photos until they produced an order of finish.
This time when the officials couldn't see the difference between third and fourth they said so.
So this time the tie will be broken in one of three ways: by a match race both sprinters can prepare for, by an act of sportsmanship, or by the utter, explicit randomness of a coin flip. Any of the three is worth waiting for.