Remembering Dead Heat drama of '12 as Olympic track and field trials begin

With the Dead Heat drama of 2012 behind them, sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh return to Eugene for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials.
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EUGENE, Ore. — The two sprinters, friends but not close friends, bound together—in perpetuity—by an odd chapter of their sport’s history, were in attendance at USA Track and Field’s annual meeting in 2013. On the floor for discussion that day was the hammering out of concrete rules for deciding how to separate two athletes who had tied in a race for the third and final position on the U.S. Olympic (or any national) team. The two sprinters found each other’s gaze on the floor of the convention, alone in fully understanding the ramifications of the matter at hand. Each of them wondered some version of the same thing, both with a mix of irony and humor: Now they’re doing this?

This weekend, those two sprinters, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh, are back in Eugene, as the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials return to Hayward Field for the third consecutive time. The women’s 100-meter dead heat disaster of 2012 seems like an absurd memory, an acid trip of uncertainty, ineptitude and melodrama that could never possibly have happened at such an important place as the Olympic trials. But it most certainly did happen. For seven days, it swallowed every other story at the meet, until it ended with a contentious, late-night meeting in a hotel suite and then a tearful withdrawal by one of the sprinters, before everybody simply went home unfulfilled. A bang, then a whimper.

Felix, 30, the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 200 meters and one of the most decorated and admired athletes in U.S. Track and Field history, will run both the 200 and 400 meters at trials, in hopes of representing the U.S. in both events in Rio, where she will face daunting competition. Tarmoh, 26, will run the 100 and 200 meters, as she did at the 2012 trials, in hopes of earning her first individual Olympic berth. Tarmoh has represented the U.S. in the 200 meters at each of the last two World Championships, in ’13 and ’15.

The two were training partners under veteran coach Bobby Kersee in 2012; now Tarmoh trains with ‘04 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Crawford, although still on the same UCLA track as Felix. Both come to Eugene after less than optimal preparation. Felix suffered a severe right ankle injury during a mid-April weight training session that kept her off the track for a month, and has run just two 400-meter races in mediocre times when she had planned a full schedule of at least five meets. Tarmoh has been suffering nagging tendinitis in her right Achilles tendon, and has not run a single outdoor race.

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Felix’s injury forced her and Kersee to drastically re-write their plans for a legacy-defining double. The injury occurred on April 17; I had interviewed Felix 12 days earlier and she was enthusiastic about some recent high-volume training sessions to prepare for doubling. “Everything was going so well,” her brother and manager, Wes. The injury occurred during a strength training session. Felix completed a set of pull-ups with a heavy, oversized medicine ball between her legs to make the reps more difficult. After the last rep, she let the ball drop to the floor and then dropped down, attempting to land beside the ball. It is something she has done hundreds of times. This time her right ankle landed on the ball, like a basketball player landing on an opponent’s foot. She immediately thought her season was over. “It was a scary moment,” she told a group of reporters Wednesday in Eugene. “I had never seen my ankle that big.”

After more than two months of rehab and catch-up, she has recalibrated her goals for Eugene. I asked her if two third-places would be acceptable. She said, “Exactly. I can do so much better a month from now. This is completely about just making the team.” As it is for Tarmoh.

Meanwhile, Roger Jennings, 49, will be sitting in the crow’s nest box atop the east grandstand at Hayward Field, studying a computer screen and clicking on a mouse with the index finger of his right hand as runners flash across his field of vision. Jennings is the head finish line judge for Flash Results—the company founded by his father, Tom Jennings, 24 years ago—which is the pre-eminent U.S.-based provider of services in the esoteric area of automatic timing and place-judging. It is exactly the same job that Roger Jennings performed four years ago and has performed at hundreds of track meets and other events since. On that day, it landed him in the middle of a storm.

Here is an abbreviated version of what happened in 2012: In the late afternoon of Sat., June 23, eight runners lined up for the women’s 100-meter final. The first three finishers would represent the U.S. in London. The track and field trials offer no escape from the unreal pressure of such moments as these. In some events, there is a back door to the Olympics (through the meeting of standards and such). The 100 meters is not one of these events. Favorite Carmelita Jeter won the race easily and would go on to take the silver medal in London, behind Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica. Tianna Bartoletta, a former long jump world champion, was easily second in Eugene. Felix and Tarmoh were very close for third.

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Hayward buzzed for a period of many seconds before the scoreboard flashed that Tarmoh had finished third with a time of 11.067 seconds and Felix was fourth in 11.068. Tarmoh had apparently won the Olympic spot, and launched into a joyous victory lap. Felix walked out of sight of the crowd and wept openly. A little over 20 minutes later, the result was changed to a dead heat. In a surreal press conference under a tent behind the Hayward grandstand, USATF Chief Public Affairs Office Jill Geer, a sacrificial lamb with no chance of victory, explained—and I’m paraphrasing here—that there was, in fact, no procedure for breaking the tie, but that the USATF braintrust would get right on it and figure something out. It was embarrassing for everyone.

This spring, I spoke with Felix at a juice bar in Venice, Calif., and asked her what she remembered about that day. “All the years I’ve been in the sport,’’ she said, and she has been a professional for 13 years, “and I can’t remember any day being as weird as that one.’’

Last week I asked Tarmoh the same question. Anyone reading this story knows that the events of the week following the dead heat would leave Felix with the Olympic berth and Tarmoh gutted. Hence, it is not surprising that Tarmoh said, very cordially, “I really have put that behind me. The only way I’m going to think about it is if it happens again.” Then she laughed. Tarmoh has a great, infectious laugh, the kind that makes you laugh with her.

Tarmoh has had four years to put that day behind her. The first time she talked publicly about the events of June 23–29, 2012 was in an interview with me at a hotel in Birmingham, England, during Team USA’s pre-Olympic training camp. (Tarmoh was a prospective member of the 4x100-meter relay). There was no infectious laugh that night, only tears. “I’m always going to remember my first Olympics,” she said, “as the year my 100-meter spot was taken away from me.”

Back to 2012. Here is what happened behind the scenes on the day of that 100-meter final: Jennings made his call on the finish photo, based not on something that he could see in images captured by either of the cameras located on the inside and outside of the finish line. Instead, he interpolated that Tarmoh’s chest had hit the line first, using two visible data points from the images. It is something that Jennings had done many times in many races when a runner is contorted in such a way at the line that his or her leading point can’t be determined.

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Then Jennings called for his own ruling to be reviewed. The reviewer was referee Bob Podkaminer, also a respected photo finish judge. Podkaminer did not disagree with Jennings’s interpolation, but worried that in such a high-profile setting as the Olympic trials, it might be challenged, possibly even in court. Here is what Podkaminer told me at the time: “In many cases, you can interpolate,” Podkaminer said. “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.” It was the safe play.

Four years later, Roger Jennings says he would make the same call again, every time. “I’ve even looked at that photo from time to time, over the last four years,” says Jennings. “I would call it the same way, the outside shoulder-torso lean for Tarmoh, with Felix fourth. But Pod’s rationale was good, the way he approached it almost like a lawyer. Can you prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was not a tie? He really did a good job of preventing that from happening. Even though I felt I did my job, Pod did his job by overruling me.

“In fact,” says Jennings, “I thought we did a pretty good job of sorting things out pretty quickly. The rest of it, after it was out of our jurisdiction, was a mess.”

A day later, USATF announced tie-breaking procedures, in which a 100-meter runoff race was the preferred option, as long as both runners agreed. There were numerous other permutations, ending with a coin flip. Most painfully, because Felix and Tarmoh were entered in the 200 meters on the penultimate day of the meet—a full week after the dead heat—they were given a week to settle on their preferred outcome.

Felix won the 200 meters in a massive personal best of 21.69 seconds; only two American women have ever run faster. Tarmoh made the 200-meter final, but finished fifth. That night all parties met in a Eugene hotel suite and agreed to a one-race runoff on Monday night at Hayward Field. In 2012, Tarmoh said she felt pressured into that decision and only recently read quotes that Jennings gave to explaining his take. She felt slighted. Less than 24 hours later, she pulled out of the runoff, the spot went to Felix and the circus pulled up stakes and left Eugene.

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“The entire experience in Eugene was very draining and very emotional for me,” says Felix. “I was happy I made the team in those two events, but everything that surrounded it took away from the accomplishment, to a degree. The whole thing ended on a very sad note for me. It wasn’t the way I had hoped it would end.”

Tarmoh told me in 2012 that she went to the trials competition on Sunday, after agreeing to participate in the runoff but before pulling out, and couldn’t relax. “All I could do was cry.” After she pulled out, she was viciously attacked on popular running and track message boards and is still best known as the woman who wouldn’t race. It’s an unfair characterization by trolls who don’t understand the intricacies of what took place.

Felix went to London and finally got her 200-meter gold medal, after twice taking silver behind Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica. Felix also was a member of the gold medal 4x100-meter relay, which broke the world record. Tarmoh won a gold medal by running in the opening round of that relay, although even that was a disappointment because Tarmoh had hoped to run the final. (She was demoted after struggling on a baton pass in a pre-Olympic meet.)

Still, there was a silver lining for Tarmoh. During her trip to London for the Olympics, Tarmoh, an émigré from Sierra Leone, met her older brother, John Mannah (he lives in London) and his family, for the first time. Tarmoh steadfastly refuses to revisit her pain, instead focusing on the joy of extending her family in person.

“This is the funniest thing about 2012,” says Tarmoh. “I am about so much more than what happened then. I got to go to London and meet my brother for the very first time. I met my nieces and nephews for the very first time. That’s something nobody can ever take away from me. Even with the dead heat and the runoff and the relay, I would go through all of that again to meet my family.”

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Athletes who compete over the next 10 days in Eugene will find USATF armed with official rules to settle a third-place tie. The rules are stated fully in attachment C of this document. In short, athletes involved in a tie in a running event will be noticed and given two hours to agree to a runoff, which will be held in time to complete the Olympic roster, but no later than 72 hours hence. If the athletes don’t agree to a runoff, they will be separated by lot, either a coin flip for two athletes tied or by drawing names from a bowl for three or more athletes.

Roger Jennings, meanwhile, learned from his experience in 2012. He would do nothing different, except perhaps exercise his prerogative to illuminate the word “unofficial” on the scoreboard next to the standings of the race. “I wish I had done that,” says Jennings. “I wish I could have saved Tarmoh from going through that entire situation down on the track that day.”

He will work, mechanically, in the same manner, as he should. He is among the best in the world at his job, with a passion for the pressure that comes with the work. “I’m really looking forward to the night of the 100-meter finals,” Jennings says. “You know that stuff can happen. You’re splitting hairs. From ’12, I learned that there are a few more things I can do to prepare for it.”

The robotic, finish-line cameras he uses, made by FinishLynx, have undergone minor technological advances since 2012, improving the clarity of finish photos. More notably, Jennings has been working to improve the quality of the picture captured by the outside camera, which was the critical image in '12. “It was a little dusk-ish that day,’’ he says. “And at Hayward, there is a shadow that comes across the track. So, planning ahead, I’ll make some adjustments with the camera so that I have a little better light at the time of the race.”

Jennings adds: “I’ll be nervous, but not as nervous as the athletes.” (Interestingly, Jennings has never met Felix or Tarmoh. “I’ve followed their careers, of course,” says Jennings. “But no, I’ve never had a conversation with them.”)

Those athletes are in much the same roles they held in 2012, although both now have deeper résumés. Felix won her gold, was injured in '13, but won her first 400-meter world title last year to set up her double for this year. Tarmoh made the U.S. worlds teams in the 200 meters in both '13 and ’15, making the final both times, fifth in ’13 and sixth in ’15. She has established herself as a world-class sprinter, but she remains far below Felix’s level. She retains a knack for getting herself in tight finishes; last year she made the U.S. team by .03 seconds, the year before that by .01 (after missing the 100 meters by .02).

“Jenebah is a super-talented athlete when she puts it together,” says Felix.

The two are still friends, but still not close friends. When Tarmoh turned 25 years old in Sept. ’14, however, her sister threw her a birthday party in Sacramento with more than 200 guests. Felix and Ginnie Crawford flew up for the party. “It was this huge African party,” says Tarmoh, “and they wanted to experience African culture.” Likewise, Tarmoh makes a point of attending events that Felix organizes. There is no enmity.

Their time in Eugene should again be interesting. Felix’s injury situation throws a deep layer of mystery over her trials. Her attempt at a double in Rio (if she makes the U.S. team in both events) is complicated by the sudden emergence of world champion Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands and silver medalist Elaine Thompson of Jamaica. Both are 24 years old, and both have run faster than Felix has ever run at the distance. In the 400 is the looming spectre of South Africa’s Caster Semenya, whose hyperandrogenism is controversial, but whose prowess at any of the 400, 800 or 1500 meters is not.

Felix would just like the chance. “If I can get through this,” she said Wednesday, “[the double] is a very real possibility.”

Tarmoh hasn’t run since the indoor season.She says she races best when rested and is using that for confidence. “I’ve been doing pool workouts, I’ve been on the bike and I’ve been getting back on the track,” she says. “It’s really by the grace of God that I’m back running the way I am.”

At the end of our interview I suggest to Tarmoh that the good news here is that the likelihood of another dead heat has to be a million to one. And here she laughs again, that great laugh of hers.

“The odds of it happening the first time,” she says, laughing harder, “were a million to one.”