The Runoff Rules

by Melissa Brunner

Our high school track coach, Mr. R, had a simple way to settle disputes over his lineups. If you thought you should be running an event instead of someone he listed, you took it to the track. The "challenge" system gave these runoffs the final say in who ran. (Although, I will say, Mr. R was a pretty fair guy, so the challenges were rarely needed or used!)

The memory of the system came back to me while following the debate over who should get the final slot on the U.S. women's 100 meter team in track and field. Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix were found to finish in a dead heat for third place at the trials. USTAF didn't have a tiebreak in place to deal with this particular situation. Tarmoh and Felix focused on their 200 meter preps while the powers that be tried to figure out what to do. With the 200 complete (Felix qualified for the Olympics, Tarmoh did not), USTAF announced Sunday that the women would compete in a runoff Monday night for the final 100 meter spot on the Olympic team.

While some have called the situation a debacle, I was excited by the prospect of a runoff to resolve it. Talk about drama - a winner-take-all showdown! Really, what other way COULD you decide it? Would it really have been fair to look at qualifying and semi-final times, where runners often back off at the finish line once they know they're advancing? Would it really have been fair to look at finishes in prior meets, when runners peak at different times? Of course, if someone would get hurt in a runoff, there'd be second-guessing, but what's the alternative? It would be nice to say just send all four, but that's not an option. So do you just send two?

Alas, we'll never know. Earlier Monday, word came down that the runoff would not happen. Tarmoh conceded the spot to Felix. Tarmoh did not give a reason, but, just Sunday, commented that she felt she finished third in the initial race and had earned the spot. Instead of a runoff, Tarmoh will now be an alternate and could still run on the 4x100 relay team.

Timing technology is so advanced these days that it will likely be awhile before we see such a situation arise again. We'll see if USTAF writes runoffs into the rule book. Do you think they should?




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