Ever wondered why sports leagues devise byzantine contingency plans for even the most indecipherable ties?
Look no further than the quagmire that blew through the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, this weekend.
Due to an embarrassing blind spot in USA Track and Field's (USATF) tie-breaking protocol, an Olympic berth for rival sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh could be decided by something so frivolous as a coin flip.
It shouldn't, but it might. And the whole sorry mess could have been avoided with the tiniest smidgen of foresight.
When Felix and Tarmoh tied for the third spot on the Team USA women's 100-meter team, fans, pundits and Bobby Kersee—who just happens to coach both athletes—turned to USATF for a solution.
One problem: They didn't have one.
It was an embarrassing admission for a body designed to legislate such matters, and proof that USATF has grown dependent upon the high-speed photography and digital time readers that do such a marvelous job separating winners from losers.
But when the technology fails, well, USATF could only offer a shrug.
The USATF was quick to mention that they have other tie-breaking procedures for other scenarios. But if your bylaws don't cover something as basic as who gets an Olympic bid, I have to wonder what the heck they do cover.
According to the AP via SI.com, after careful deliberation, USATF ruled Sunday that the runners will decide their fate. If both want to decide the bid by way of coin toss, they will. If both want to stage a separate runoff—likely to be held in Eugene and before the end of trials, according to the AP—they will.
If the athletes disagree and yet another tie prevails, the tie-breaking procedure will default to a runoff.
Considering the scenario, it was a savvy solution by USATF. The public, I imagine, would rather see a runoff, simply because it seems like the fairest way to decide which athlete is better suited for the spot.
Thankfully, that is now the most likely scenario.
But they also couldn't mandate a runoff, largely because it would be unfair to the runners who have been held hostage by this hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment. If the athletes don't feel fit to run an extra race, they shouldn't have to just because USATF made an oversight.
Now, if USATF already had a tie-breaking procedure in place—as USA Swimming does—I'd say they could demand a second race. In that case, the athletes would know the rules beforehand and, within moments of tying, have a clear idea of the task that lay before them.
"Hey, if you didn't want to grind through another race, you should've run faster (or slower)."
USATF cannot, in good faith, make that tough-luck overture to Felix and Tarmoh. It would look callous, perhaps even dictatorial.
For its mismanagement, USATF must now live with the possibility that a little metal disc could crush someone's Olympic dream.
Not so much.
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