An Olympic Dream Is Just a Coin Toss Away
by Gus Jarvis
Jun 28, 2012 | 1269 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Heads or tails? 

Choose the right one and you’re on your way to compete in the summer Olympics in London. Choose wrong and all your efforts to become one of the world’s fastest women seeking a gold medal is down the drain. As crazy as this sounds, it’s actually the scenario U.S. athletes Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh face after a weird decision made by U.S. Track and Field.

Most of the time when we talk about rules to a game, we generally think there are too many rules in sports and that they can often encumber our enjoyment of a particular event. “Stop blowing the whistle! Let them play!” I’ve screamed it. You’ve screamed it. But what happens when there is a situation that lacks a certain rule and the referee basically has to make up the game as it goes along? Things usually don’t end well for all involved. The referee in the situation of Tarmoh and Felix is U.S. Track and Field, and boy have they screwed up at a time when Olympic dreams are on the line.

Last Saturday in Eugene, Ore., the women’s 100-meter final in which both Tarmoh and Felix ran, was a fantastic race. Carmelita Jeter won, and Tianna Madison finished second. It was hard to tell who was third, Tarmoh or Felix. Third place is the final qualifying spot on the U.S. women’s 100-meter Olympic team. Initially, it was announced that Tarmoh finished third and she would be heading to London. But after a lengthy review, it was announced the next day that actually the women’s torsos had crossed the line at exactly the same time of 11.068 seconds. The problem with this is U.S. Track and Field, the governing body for the sport in the U.S., does not have a tie-breaking rule for third place. 

The fact that the two finished in third place was crazy enough but then to find out that nobody knows what to do about these two athletes who are competing for the last Olympic spot on the team seemed even crazier. I guess nobody thought something like this would ever happen.

Anxiously waiting for an outcome, Felix and Tarmoh had to wait until Monday for U.S. Track and Field to rule on how it would break the tie. In an all-too-lengthy press release (a whopping 18 paragraphs long), U.S. Track and Field decided on two options in how it could play out. The athletes can choose between a coin toss or a run-off. If they both agree on an option, that will be the way it will play out. If one chooses a run-off and the other a coin toss, a run-off will be held. If one of them makes a choice and the other doesn’t at all, the one who made the choice will be the decider. If they both refuse to make a choice, a coin toss will be held.

Of course, in the spirit of gamesmanship, which is so important in our culture, either one of them can choose to give up their spot without a coin toss or run off, but we all know that’s not going to happen.

The question that comes to my mind in all of this is how the two must submit their answer to the big question. Do they send in a written response by the end of the week? Do they walk into a voter’s booth at the local Eugene precinct and pull a lever? Do they have to make their decision at the same time? Or can one competitor see what the other decided and then decide? Or perhaps the two meet at the starting line, face each other and then simultaneously give their answer. If it’s a run-off, the two go to the line for the start of the race. If it’s a coin toss, an official gives it a flip right then and there. However it happens, it has to be done by the end of this weekend, which doesn’t give much time for the two to prepare for another race since they are both competitors in the 200-meter race as well.

If a run-off is the final outcome, which I believe should happen, the when and where of the event would be determined by U.S. Track and Field officials, and according to a Yahoo Sports report, it would have to be held by the end of the trials on July 1. While the two have not made their decision, it sounds like a run-off will be held.

“Nine times out of 10, most athletes aren't going to want to flip a coin,” Bobby Kersee, who coaches both athletes, told the Associated Press. “Would you go to the Super Bowl and after two overtimes or what have you, have the referees take both coaches to the middle of the field and say, ‘We're going to flip to see who wins the Super Bowl?’ I don't see that.”

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and if, in the case of a run-off, just how close these two will be once again when they cross the finish line. 

For me, perhaps the funniest aspect to all of this is the attention to detail U.S. Track and Field had when making the ruling early this week. For an organization that had no attention to detail, because it had no rule in the books for a third-place tie, its ruling and the intricacies of that ruling are hilarious. Take for example the rules surrounding a coin toss. 

“USATF shall provide a United States Quarter Dollar coin with the image of George Washington appearing on the obverse hub of the coin and an Eagle appearing on the reverse hub of the coin,” the ruling states. “Each athlete shall inspect the coin to ensure the obverse and reverse hubs of the coin reflect the images of George Washington and the Eagle, respectively.”

OK, better make sure it’s the right quarter. Got it. 

“Once the choices have been made and confirmed by the USATF representative,” it continues, “each athlete shall face each other and the USATF representative shall bend his or her index finger at a 90 degree angle to his or her thumb, allowing the coin to rest on his or her thumb. In one single action, the USATF representative shall toss the coin into the air, allowing the coin to fall to the ground…”

I wonder if U.S. Track and Field has the official rules to Rock, Paper, Scissors? These coin toss instructions were pretty damn informative. If I were one of the athletes, I’d definitely go coin-toss. It would be the most highly publicized coin toss of all time. You can’t win gold without a little luck. Perhaps we introduce coin toss as the next new Olympic sport? 

We’d have to figure out what quarter to use, but I’d be into it. or @gusgusj

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