If you haven’t heard, last weekend’s Womens 100-meter Olympic Trial foot race ended in a dead tie for third place. Since only the top three women will go to the London Games, this is obviously a problem. Which third-place woman will compete: Allyson Felix or Jeneba Tarmoh?
This is not a shoulder-shrug question. In this year of 2012, with all the photographic evidence in the world (including photos shot at 3,000 frames per second), there is still no resolution to the winner. What hits me with this story is the call of what’s considered Fair in today’s sports.
Tim Laydon of SI.com offers the inside story of Roger Jennings, who works as the chief photo finish examiner for the Olympic Trials and many other major sports events. Jennings was tasked with figuring out which torso — Felix’s or Tarmoh’s — crossed the plane of the finish line first. Due to body position and pieces of anatomy blocked in the photos, Jennings had to interpolate data using measured points and equations to decide the winner in a thirty-second window of TV air time. He did, and he stands by his analysis.
From SI.com: Jennings said, “In the end, my read was subjective. The involvement of the torso is always subjective to some degree. They (USATF) went with what they could actually see. I was overruled, and I certainly signed off on their decision. But I did my job. I called what I saw. I try to stay consistent. If I went back and read that photo 100 times, I would call it the same way every time.” (That is, he would call Tarmoh the winner, based on an interpolation of where her torso was at the finish).
Despite Jennings’ ruling, the USATF decided to declare a draw, and is still hemming and hawing about how to decide a winner. They hired Jennings to use technology, but are ignoring his findings because the naked eye sees a tie. There may be a re-race, and they may even flip a coin.
I’m no world-class athlete, but I understand competition and the spirit of winning. In my mind, I’d rather win (or lose) a straight race, even if it’s decided by a math equation to ascertain where my right bib number should be in a photograph. Leaving the Olympics up to heads-or-tails seems…unfair. Even a re-race leaves every aspect up for debate (mental and physical conditions, the lay of a track pebble, the direction of a breeze, the wailing distraction of a distant siren) and will never resolve what happened in the original, true race.
I’d like to shake hands with Mr. Jennings for using his decades of expertise, the newest technology available, and pure guts to make a decision. To the USATF: What’s fair is a fair race, and that was already run. You hired Roger Jennings to do a job, so take a lesson from him. Muster some courage and declare a winner. We’ve got a Games to play.