Every major sporting event in this country has a signature personality trait we can immediately identify. There’s a little touch of sadomasochism (U.S. Open golf) and the grandiose spectacle (Super Bowl). There’s the highfalutin’ party (Kentucky Derby) and daredevil backyard barbecue (Indy 500). There’s the bogus sideshow (BCS championship), March Madness (the NCAA basketball Tournament) and the extended anxiety of pro baseball, basketball and hockey’s lengthy championship chases.
Yet none of them can lay claim to the unmistakable quality of America’s Olympic track and field trials, the most excruciatingly tortuous and brutally objective sporting event I know. There’s no “wait until next year” in track and field because the window of opportunity for too many Olympians is a slim once-in-a-lifetime thing. That’s why it can be cruel and unforgiving, yet it’s also why without question these trials remain the best way of choosing our American Olympians.
These trials don’t allow for popularity votes or other subjective nonsense that creeps into so many other Olympic sports. The U.S. track and field trials favor substance over style and have always been able to sort through the complexities of doing the right thing instead of worrying about the bending-over-backwards politics involved in doing what’s fair.
The track and field trials settle things with no regard for reputations, favors or silliness. Well, at least that’s the way it used to be.
Now, the folks who run USA Track and Field have messed that all up.
Now the one sporting event that has always valued the painful simplicity of “may the best man (or woman) win” may decide to settle one of their precious Olympic berths by the capriciousness of a coin flip.
When Saturday night’s women’s 100-meter final was done, third place ended in the most unlikely thing of all — an absolute dead heat between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh. Stopwatches couldn’t separate the two sprinters and neither could two photo-finish cameras that click off 3,000 frames per second. After first giving third place to Tarmoh, the judges determined that both ran the race in identical 11.068 seconds. Then they decided they would need another 24 hours to figure out what to do about the dead heat because — gasp and swoon — no one ever imagined that there could be a dead heat in the Olympic trials.
It only gets worse. By Sunday evening, the folks at USA Track and Field issued a two-page, 18-paragraph statement to correct a problem that could have been solved in one two-word statement.
Instead, they spent 24 hours keeping Felix and Tarmoh in limbo and coming up with a solution that is neither right nor fair and leaves way too much up in the air.
Option 1: One of these fiercely competitive athletes who have been training all their lives for the chance to go the Olympics with “USA” on their chest has the option to simply give away her spot and accept an alternate’s role on the Olympic team. We can file this one under “snowball’s chance in hell.”
What they’re hoping is that Felix, the defending silver medalist in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and one of the gold-medal favorites in London, will win the 200-meter finals and out of the goodness of her heart give her training partner Tarmoh the 100 berth. But that’s not right or fair because Felix wasn’t competing in the 100 for laughs. As she said tearfully to reporters after the 100 race when she thought she missed out, “fourth place is the worst.”
See, this is the difference between “fair” and “right.” Fair is a warm-and-fuzzy, Kumbaya moment where everyone gets orange slices after the game and they hand out participation trophies for everybody. The trials aren’t supposed to be about that. They’re supposed to be a bit more cutthroat. Win or go home. Felix shouldn’t be put in a position where she has to give up her dream of the 100-200 sprint double in London so that Tarmoh can go to London, too. That might not be fair, but it sure is right.
Option 2 isn’t much better: The two athletes must decide on a winner-take-all run-off or a coin flip. USATF even came up with something called a “coin toss protocol” that even determines that it must be a U.S. quarter, but not just any quarter. It can’t be one of those quarters that commemorate the 50 states. It has to be one with George Washington on one side and the American eagle on the flip side.
This is where it all falls apart for me. The officials from USATF say they included several former Olympians in their discussions when they came up with this solution. That makes it even more puzzling because I can’t think of any circumstance where a great athlete would want any competition to be decided by something so capricious as a coin flip.
There’s only one way for this to be decided. USATF blew it. They wimped out and put this decision all on the athletes’ shoulders, and that’s wrong. In the spirit of the Olympic trials, you don’t change the personality of the event. You tell them it’s going to be decided by a match race. Line up at the starting line and settle this thing in one breathless 11-second blur. It has to come down to a Sunday night match race under the bright lights of Hayward Field. It has to be on prime time national television on NBC as the ideal way to end their Olympic trials coverage. It has to be with Felix and Tarmoh lined up side by side in the center of the track in a packed stadium full of the most knowledgeable track fans in the world, every one of them on the edge of their seats waiting for the crack of the starter’s pistol to send Felix and Tarmoh on a historic sprint.
It would be the perfect ending to the best track meet in the world not called the Olympic Games. It would put American track and field on center stage and captivate a sporting audience that is just starting to get into its pre-Olympic groove.
It’s hard to understand how none of the powers that be in American track and field ever in their wildest dreams considered the possibility that one of their finals could end in a dead heat and had no protocol for that rare but realistic possibility.
Well, at least they learned their lesson.
If the potential Sunday night match race ends in a dead heat, this time the folks at USA Track and Field have their bases covered.
If there’s a tie this time, they’ll go to ...
What else? A coin flip.
Gee what happened, the BCS computer wasn’t available?
Bryan Burwell is a Lee News Service columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (314) 340-8185.