- Published on 02 July 2012
- Written by Andy McCallister
- Hits: 882
(Updated at 3:30 p.m. CDT, July 2)
Depending on your way of looking at the world, you were either comforted or annoyed a couple of weeks ago at the thought of the latest technology the world has to offer being unable to break the tie for third place in the women’s 100-meter dash final at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Here’s a little background. The top three finishers in each event at our Olympic Trials meet make our Olympic track and field team every four years (assuming they’ve achieved an Olympic “A” standard, but that’s another column).
Carmelita Jeter and Tianna Madison finished one-two in the race in question, a whopping four-hundredths of a second apart. No problem calling that finish.
But in the race for third, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh came to the line together to the thousandth of a second, 11.068 to be precise. Tarmoh was initially (and unofficially) awarded third place (by one ten-thousandth of a second) on the Hayward Field scoreboard before officials reversed that ruling and called the race for third a dead heat.
No amount of close scrutiny paid to the angle afforded by either of the two photo-finish cameras, mounted on either side of the finish line, could separate the leading edge of the torsos of Felix and Tarmoh.
If the question had been who finished second, this wouldn’t have been such a big issue, but this was for third, the final spot on the team in the 100. We can’t take four.
So capable is our technology these days for determining such things that none of the seasoned observers on the scene could remember having to face such a question.
Perhaps that’s why there wasn’t really a satisfying sentence or two in the USA Track and Field rulebook on how to handle the situation.
To that group’s credit, they put together a procedure on how the tie would be broken (and no, rock-paper-scissors didn’t enter into it). Here’s how we solved this situation and how we’ll handle it if it ever happens again:
First, if one of the athletes decides to concede the spot, they will be named the alternate for the team. If neither is willing to yield, third place is decided with either a coin toss or a run-off.
If both athletes choose the same method, that method is used. If there is disagreement, a run-off will take place. If both decline to declare a preference, a coin toss will break the tie.
But speaking now of technology, how could the fancy cameras not tell who was third and fourth?
Well, the short answer is that they could. It is now the accuracy used to construct and paint lines on the actual tracks themselves that is the limiting factor.
The IAAF, the international sanctioning body for track and field, has a standard of plus or minus six millimeters of “confidence limit uncertainty” with respect to track measurements.
The latest FinishLynx cameras, scanning finish lines at 3,000 images per second, can time events to 0.0001 (one ten-thousandth) of a second, or just three millimeters per image, at the speed of world-class sprinters.
So we’ve come to the point that the best cameras are capable of much greater precision than most of the devices in the construction process used to arrive at the measured lengths between the start and finish lines in a 100-meter race.
In other words, dead heats in running events are still very much a possibility, and we do need procedures for dealing with their aftermath.
Monday morning update: On July 1, Felix and Tarmoh announced that they would race for the last spot on the U.S. women’s Olympic 100-meter contingent on Monday, July 2 at Hayward Field before a live national NBC television audience at 7 p.m. Central time.
And if — perish the thought — they tie again, it really will come down to a coin flip.
Monday afternoon update: This story took another bizarre twist when Tarmoh backed out of Monday night's scheduled run-off in an e-mail sent to USA Track and Field late Monday morning, just hours before the race. In withdrawing from the run-off, Tarmoh conceded third place to Felix and will be the 100-meter alternate for the U.S. team in London.