Monday, June 25, 2012

An elegant solution

Exciting stuff happening at the US Olympic Track & Field trials. Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh tied for third in the women's 100 m final. This is significant for a number of reasons. It is the first time in the history of the trials that such a situation has arisen. The top three women go (actually it is a bit more complex than that, there are standards involved) but in this case presumably all the women involved had the standard and so the top three women in this race were to be selected to represent the US in the women's 100 m. Had there been a tie for any other position, it would not have mattered. A tie for first would have resulted in the two first place women and the third going. Similarly a tie for second would not have created problems but a tie for third means only one of the two women can go; there is not room for both. Adding further human interest to the story is the fact that both athletes are coached by Bobby Kersee who has asked that the decision be postponed until the 200 m is over in which both athletes in question are participating.

Lacking a precedent, or apparently a contigency plan for this eventuality, the USATF had to devise a mechanism for selecting between these two women. They have come up with what I believe is an extremely elegant solution. Essentially they decided they are two ways to select between the athletes either by running them off against each other or by simply flipping a coin. The choice is, in part, in the hands of the athletes. Each athlete will state her preference. If both athletes have the same preferred solution, the officials will respect their wishes. If the athletes do not have the same preferred solution, they will run off. If neither athlete has a preference, they will flip a coin. It's quite elegant.

It's a fascinating situation because it adds a layer of complexity to our typically straight forward sport. I have always loved the simplicity of track and field. If you jump or throw the furthest or highest, you win. Period. If you get there first, you win. Period.  I do this story compelling because it shows how our sport can deviate from the normal and require some creativity of the officiants. It also makes me wonder how this situation would be handled in other events. It seems reasonable to propose a run-off in the sprints, up to say, 400 m. When does it become unreasonable? How would this situation be handled in the marathon? It would not be reasonable to ask the athletes to run off. It seems hideously painful to make or break someone's dream solely on the toss of a coin or some such. One could look at the athletes' season best but then what of the athlete who has perfectly timed their peak for the trials and has no other eggs in their basket so to speak?

I am extremely curious to find out what these athletes will chose and how they will perform in the 200 m.


  1. Ditto! And am thankful that situations like this one are so rare:)

  2. Seeing the photo of the finish, I couldn't help but think "I bet that's the first time either of them wished their breasts were bigger." Just happened to be the first parts of both torsos to cross the line.

    It's extremely unlikely that such a result could happen in a distance event and the decision on who goes would be "political," that is, decided by the nation's Olympic committee as being in the best interest for national medal count. In Britain, for example, trials and standards are just guidelines - the team is decided by committee.

  3. Naive comment coming at you: why would either of them prefer NOT to go to the Olympics?

  4. SLG - sorry wasn't clear. I meant preference for WHICH tie breaking method is used i.e. athletes get to pick btwn flipping a coin and a run-off. I think it is safe to assume both athletes have a preference for going to the olympics (and given they are both running the 200 m and there is the 4 X 100 m relay as well, both probably will!)

  5. Aha! That makes sense. Silly me.