At U.S. Olympic Trials, A Track And Field Tie

Some of the events at the at U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., this past weekend were too close to call. First and second place were clear in the Women's 100 meters, but third place was a dead tie. A run-off or a coin flip will determine who goes to London.

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The world of track and field is facing a dilemma. On Saturday at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, there was a tie for third place in the women's 100 meter final. It turns out there are no clear rules for what to do about a tie among sprinters. The drama and the tie continue today and possibly for the next few days.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Watching a 100-meter race, our eyes naturally gravitate to the front of the pack to see who wins. That was obvious Saturday, as Carmelita Jeter crossed the finish line first, followed closely behind by Tianna Madison. The real drama, as heard on NBC Sports, was in third place as Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh appeared to cross the line simultaneously.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here's the end. Look on the right side. In lane one, there's Tarmoh and Felix. Who gets the third spot?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wow. It's the torso that counts, of course.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And it hasn't come up on the computer yet, so clearly, they are looking at that photo.

GOLDMAN: While the unofficial result posted on the scoreboard said Tarmoh finished two-thousandths of a second ahead, meet timers and officials gathered at the top of the grandstand in Eugene's Hayward Field to pore over the photo finish.

JILL GEER: They got it down to a photo that was taken 3,000 frames per second.

GOLDMAN: USA Track and Field spokesperson, Jill Geer.

GEER: Right at the moment of the finish and everyone agreed that it was actually a dead heat.

GOLDMAN: Three thousand a second?

GEER: And that's the slow camera. They have another camera that shoots at 5,000 frames per second. But that camera, which was on the outside of the track - that camera's view was obscured by the athletes' arms and it's not whose arm crosses the finish line first. It's whose torso crosses the line first and that did not give a clear image of the torso.

GOLDMAN: There had to be a resolution because it's the top three finishers who qualify for the Olympic team. They don't take a fourth. So track and Olympic officials had to swing into action and put in place the protocol for such happenings. Oops, no protocol.

GEER: I think, because it had simply never happened before.

GOLDMAN: Actually, Geer says there was a dead heat tie for third in the men's 400-meter hurdles at the 1980 Olympic trials, but since the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, there was no need to resolve the tie. Geer says there are tiebreaking rules in place for field events, but there weren't for sprints until late last night.

After meetings with track and Olympic officials and Olympic athletes, a tiebreaking plan was announced, either a run-off or a coin toss. Athletes choose. Geer says everything was discussed from fastest times in earlier rounds to who had the higher ranking coming into the trials. But it was decided that, since the Olympic selection process places emphasis on performance at the trials...

GEER: That's why we're trying to resolve it here in Eugene, you know, at this time and place with these athletes.

GOLDMAN: Bob Kersee coaches both Felix and Tarmoh. He growled in an interview, quote, "They need to leave my athletes alone and let me coach them in the 200, then make a decision." Two hundred meters competition begins Thursday with the finals Saturday. The trials end Sunday and so, too, will the question. Who's the third place finisher in the women's 100 meters?

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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