Nailbiters And Tiebreakers In London Olympics

It was a big day for sprinters in track and field Saturday. NPR's Mike Pesca joins guest host Linda Wertheimer with news from the 2012 London Olympics and the many ways to break a tie.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD")

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And now, from Mars to London and the Olympics.

SPANDAU BALLET: (Singing) Gold, always believe in your soul. You've the power to know you're indestructible. Always believe in you are gold, because that's what...

WERTHEIMER: Gold, and it was a big day for female sprinters in track and field yesterday. For more on the women's 100-meter and what's coming up in the men's, we're joined by NPR'S Mike Pesca.

Welcome, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hi, Linda. And let me just say that Spandau Ballet song, "Gold," you know, at the end of that song, singer Tony Hadley holds a note for like 15 seconds. And that's clearly an Olympian task. But for the real Olympians...

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: OK.

PESCA: ...that's called an Olympian segueway. You take it from there.

WERTHEIMER: Ah-huh. So, Mike, the women's 100-meter was a nail biter. Set it up for us.

PESCA: Well, it usually actually takes me more than 11 seconds to bite my nails. So, in that way, it wasn't a nail biter. But...

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: ...Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce won in 10.75 seconds. And three hundredths of a second behind her was Carmelita Jeter. She was just edged out by the Jamaican and also trailed by the Jamaican, because Veronica Campbell Brown came in third.

WERTHEIMER: This was American Carmelita Jeter's first Olympics. Do you expect will see her again?

PESCA: Yeah. Well, we're going to see her in a couple of days in the 200-meters, though that's not her best event. And Allyson Felix who came in sixth in the hundred, she could win the 200-meters. Maybe Jamaicans will trail her. Carmelita almost made the Olympics in 2008. She's really been the best American sprinter for a while but she kind of bombed out in trials, surprisingly. She's doing much better this time.

WERTHEIMER: This event was a preview of - this event was a preview of the final in the men's 100. Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake the guys to beat?

PESCA: They are. Usain Bolt, of course, is the world record holder - 9.58 seconds. We can't go that fast, can we? I guess he can. But he was beaten in Jamaican trials by Blake and he also lost in the 2011 world championships. Blake won that, too. But in 2011, Bolt had a false start and they have very draconian false start rules here in the Olympics. So, if that happens - one false start and you're out - you don't get a second chance.

WERTHEIMER: Do the Americans have a chance?

PESCA: They do. In fact, two Americans ran the fastest in qualifying. Now, take qualifying with a big grain of salt because, for instance, if you watch Bolt's qualifying race he knew he had won and so he just kind of eased up in the last, we can't even say second, the last millisecond. Tyson Gay, top American runner; Justin Gatlin, he's great; and Ryan Bailey, there's a kid who's been coming on strong. He's run the fastest in the Olympics so far.

WERTHEIMER: So, Mike, what is your curveball this week?

PESCA: Well, this week - and with curveballs I usually try to go for something unusual. And there was an unusual occurrence, I thought, in the women's individual all-around in gymnastics, where an American, Aly Raismen, and a Russian, Aliya Mustafina, were tied for third. So why not just - after all the events were done. So why not just give them both bronze medals, right? Well, gymnastics has been really struggling with what to do with tiebreakers.

And there was a big tiebreaking procedure that I have to say the folks at NBC - I didn't watch the NBC broadcast. But it was reported back that the folks at NBC were really confused. How do you break a tie? They got a little bit wrong. Basically, how gymnastics chooses to break a tie is a throw out the worst score. In women's gymnastics there's four apparata(ph), and so they throw the worst score.

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: I guess on the theory that if you stumble once, it should be held against you. But, you know, ties are frequent and gymnastic used to allow ties. And technically, they do this time around but they go through long, long procedures to break a tie. I find, my theory is that they do allow for ties - the Olympics does - in sports that are races that are timed. So if two swimmers, say, touch at the same time, to the hundredths of a second, well, then they'll say that's a tie.

But gymnastics, there are so many numbers involved, so many difficulties scores and execution scores, and different apparata(ph). When you have all those numbers you have kind of the different ways to break a tie. It's so much more tempting. So that's why gymnastic scores are really complex.

WERTHEIMER: So has there ever been a tie for gold?

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah, there has. In 2000, Gary Hall, Jr. and Anthony Ervin, in a swimming event they touched at the same time. And the really interesting thing is you might remember last Olympics in Beijing, Nastia Liukin, the gymnast tied for gold but she was awarded the silver because of tiebreaking procedures. But in that same sport in 1988, her father, Valerie Liukin, was allowed to tied for a gold on the high bar.

WERTHEIMER: So there's no thought of just getting a big - some medal share and cutting the thing apart?

PESCA: Well, you know, it's happened. The 1928 speed skating, two guys tied for gold and three guys tied for bronze. And my favorite is weightlifting where if two guys or women lift the same weight, you know how they break the tie? They weigh the athletes.

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: And the lifter who weighs the least wins the tiebreak.

WERTHEIMER: Mike, thank you very much, as always.

PESCA: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mike Pesca from London.

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