USATF has no one to blame but itself for botched 100-meter runoff
EUGENE, Ore. -- At shortly before noon Pacific Time on Monday, a steady stream of trucks exited the gates of Hayward Field. Television trucks. Food trucks. Construction trucks. Instead of the echo of public address announcements excitedly translating the intricacies of a track meet for spectators, there was the incessant humming of power tools taking down temporary structures. Photo finish timing impresario Tom Jennings, whose company -- and mine -- had become entangled in a controversy that cast a shadow over the U.S. Olympic Trials, helped load up his company's semi-trailer for a trip to the next big meet. Vin Lananna, the de facto director of the trials, hustled around with a leather valise and his green-and-yellow Oregon sunglasses, already planning future events.
There is always a certain sadness in the air when a major sporting event is finished somewhere; the circus pulling up stakes and leaving town. Yet in this instance, on yet another cloudy afternoon in Oregon, with rain always in the distance and often in the air, there was a deeper disappointment and a foreboding sense of lasting hurt. Less than 24 hours earlier, officials from USA Track and Field had announced a potentially face-saving runoff race on Monday night at Hayward Field between sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh to decide the third and final individual position for the women's 100 meters at the London Olympics.
Felix and Tarmoh -- ad nauseum warning -- had finished in a third-place dead heat eight days earlier on Saturday, June 23, behind winner Carmelita Jeter and runner-up Tianna Madison. They were officially each timed in 11.068 seconds. (Much more on the timing below.)
NBC Sports had set aside a live programming window to cover the runoff. Felix (who is Tarmoh's training partner with coach Bob Kersee in Los Angeles) called it "weird." But there was an undeniable buzz. Especially since the journey to that presumptive runoff had been ... well, here's what I wrote Sunday afternoon at Hayward in anticipation of the race:
Or not. Late Sunday night in Eugene, a source told me that Tarmoh had informed USATF that she was planning to withdraw from the runoff. I posted this to my Twitter feed at 11:07, Pacific Time, Sunday night: "Jeneba Tarmoh telling USATF that as of now she won't do 100m runoff. SI.com photo finish story part of debate. Developing..." At two minutes past midnight in Eugene,
Also that evening Drummond, acting in his role as chairman of the USATF athletes advisory committee (a liaison between the athletes and USTAF bureaucrats), spoke to Tarmoh and would say later that he was convinced that Tarmoh had decided to run. She hadn't, or she changed her mind, and made a late-night call to Felix (who is her training partner with coach Bob Kersee in Los Angeles). Kimberly Holland, Tarmoh's agent, said she notified USATF officials at 11:15 Sunday night in Eugene that Tarmoh was almost certain to withdraw. Early Monday morning Holland began calling, texting and emailing media with the news that Tarmoh had withdrawn from the meet. An official announcement came from the USATF at 10:47 a.m. With that, a days' worth of unique excitement was replaced Monday morning with the resounding thud of failure. NBC still planned to broadcast a story from Eugene during the swimming trials, but not a race. "An empty track and 'B roll' footage,'' texted three-time Olympic shot putter Adam Nelson Monday afternoon (and if a text could be described as "dry,'' this one was). "I've already programmed my DVR.''
The nine-day dead heat controversy had unfortunately overwhelmed the trials. It had become bigger than Ashton Eaton's towering world record in the decathlon, bigger than Galen Rupp's 5,000/10,000 distance double, bigger, even, than Felix's stunning 21.69-second time in winning the 200 on Saturday afternoon, the sixth-fastest time in history. (Yes, the media was complicit in making the dead heat big, and I am part of that media; it was both unfortunate and impossible to ignore the combination of personal drama and systemic bungling, a daily train wreck of inaction by the USATF). While the U.S. Olympic Trials in swimming and gymnastics built momentum through feelgood trials and Phelpsian superstar mojo, track became a lurid, pathetic sideshow, a sport unable to conduct itself.
Tarmoh's only explanation for her withdrawal came within the USATF statement released Monday (a distinctly judicial sounding release; more on that below): "I, Jeneba Tarmoh, have decided to decline my third place position in the 100-meter dash to Allyson Felix. I understand that with this decision I am no longer running the 100-meter dash in the Olympic Games and will be an alternate for the event. As an alternate I understand that I will be asked to run if another 100-meter runner decides not to for personal reasons, and/or on the 4x100-meter relay."
It is unclear whether the language in Tarmoh's statement precludes litigation to pursue a spot on the team. "I can't say, it's something that's going to have to be discussed," said attorney Howard Jacobs, who has represented many track and field athletes and consulted with Holland after the dead heat. USA Track and Field must submit its final team roster to the United Stated Olympic Committee by July 7. But Felix and Tarmoh are both already on that roster. Felix is now in the 100 and 200 (one of three women running two sprints, along with Jeter in the 100 and 200 and Sanya Richards-Ross in the 200 and 400), and Tarmoh is a member of the 4x100 relay pool, where she could run early rounds, the final (if the USA reaches the final) or neither one.
On Monday, Tarmoh told the
"No legal action at all," she said.
In cases like this, there is always underground speculation that other parties -- most notably sponsors -- might have intervened to entice Tarmoh to give up her spot. There is no immediate evidence that any such deals were cut, and Tarmoh told the
Tarmoh's coach at Mt. Pleasant High School in San Jose, Calif., Steve Nelson, 50, who had spoken with Tarmoh during the week, suggested that Tarmoh, 22, was perhaps in part just trying to end the ordeal: "I could see in her interviews that she was mentally and physically exhausted by the time this all ended," said Nelson.
Monday night Tarmoh told NBC, "Physically, I felt drained.''
Felix, 26, meanwhile, was every bit as cool and composed as one would expect from a three-time world champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist who first began traveling the world as a professional when she was 17 years old. Soon after the runoff was announced on Sunday in Eugene, Felix's publicity team arranged a series of one-on-one phone interviews with major media outlets (including SI/SI.com), in which Felix displayed the combination of icy competitive passion and personal warmth that has fueled her success on the track and her marketability off it.
"Given the options placed in front us,'' she told me Sunday, "the best thing is to just run. I think, more than anything else, it's just all going to be really weird. It's not going to be neat or anything like that. Just weird.''
Steve Nelson said, in retrospect, Tarmoh probably expected Felix to relinquish her 100 spot if she ran well in the 200. That was a common theory around Hayward. Felix said Sunday that it was never in play, even if her medal chances in the 100 are minimal.
"For me, it's always been about the 200, and the 100 makes me better in the 200,'' said Felix. "So I'm going to fight for that 100 meters."
It was a striking difference in reactions. Adam Nelson said, "It sounds like the difference between a professional and an amateur... Jeneba is young and probably let the situation spin more out of control. Allyson is a true professional. Nothing bad to say about either of them."
Clearly the events of June 23 kept a firm hold on Tarmoh. Less than a minute after both runners crossed the finish line on that late afternoon, the stadium scoreboard illuminated times for world champion Jeter (10.92 seconds), the surprising Madison (10.96) and then, after a delay, Tarmoh in third place (11.067 seconds) and Felix in fourth. Tarmoh ran a jubilant victory lap, then was given a medal, a team warm-up suit and placed in front of a press conference. Felix was seen sobbing outside the media area and then spoke emotionally of her disappointment.
But when Tarmoh was in drug testing, after all of this, she was notified that the race result had been made official as a dead heat. Attention immediately turned to breaking the tie (see below), but the next day, Holland called me and asked, "What about the result on the scoreboard? What happened to the zero-sixty-seven? Everybody is talking about a runoff, but what about the scoreboard?"
What about it? Three days later I sat down with chief photo finish judge Roger Jennings, 50, who outlined the procedures he followed on the day of the women's 100 (and has followed thousands of other times). I wrote
That referee, Bob Podkaminer, 70, also experienced in photo finish technology, overruled Jennings. The reason for Podkaminer's reversal was that Jennings's call had been an "interpolation" of the location of Tarmoh's torso, which is common in sprit races. Podkaminer said to me, "In many cases, you can interpolate. But these are the Olympic Trials, where there has to be a more exacting standard. An interpolation is not fact. At some point, I might be asked to stand up and justify what I decided."
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."
Tarmoh's camp became aware of Jennings's published comment to me only on Saturday, four days after the story was posted, and it became central to their argument that Tarmoh should have been declared the winner. A copy of my story was presented as evidence of sorts in the Sunday meeting. "She was railroaded," said Nelson, the coach. (In
On Sunday night, Drummond asked me to email him a link to the story and then contacted Roger Jennings to discuss it. According to a source familiar with that discussion, Drummond, who called the interview "a fact-finding mission," asked Jennings if the article misrepresented him. Jennings said that the article was accurate (which he had also expressed to me in an email earlier in the week). An individual who witnessed the Drummond-Jennings exchange, said, "It's Sunday night and they're talking about the photo finish? As soon as I saw that, I knew there was not going to be a runoff on Monday."
An individual familiar with the situation told SI.com Monday that the timing company is prepared to be a co-defendant or be deposed in a potential lawsuit against USATF that centers on the women's 100. (Tom and Roger Jennings work for a separate company, which is subcontracted by the timing company). It is unclear, as Jacobs said, if any such lawsuit would actually take place or whom Tarmoh would sue.
Yet even the hint of ongoing controversy further stains USATF, which has done little right since the finish of the race.
All of this seemed salvageable on Sunday, when the runoff was announced. There was palpable excitement in the track community and beyond. Tweets announced "Must-see TV!" and other similar exhortations. But in truth, the runoff began to unravel almost immediately after it was announced, its cancellation a mere formality by Monday morning. Instead of competition at Hayward Field, there was only construction, heavy work that represents the slow dismantling of a sport.