Commentary

A unique dilemma at U.S. track trials

Updated: June 24, 2012, 3:00 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

EUGENE, Ore. -- Rock, paper, scissors, anyone?

It is a fact of life that years of training for the Olympics often come down to tenths of a second at the U.S. track and field trials. Or hundredths of a second. Ask Virginia Crawford, who finished fourth behind Lolo Jones and thereby missed the Olympic team by four-hundredths of a second in the 100-meter hurdles Saturday afternoon.

Or thousandths of a second. Ask Allyson Felix, who left the Hayward Field track thinking she had finished fourth to Jeneba Tarmoh in the 100 by one-thousandth of a second, thus dashing her high hopes of Olympic medals in that event and the 200. "It's true, fourth is the worst," Felix told reporters, tears welling in her eyes. "I'm just disappointed. I felt like I worked really hard and it just didn't come together."

[+] EnlargeJeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix
Michael Heiman/Getty ImagesJeneba Tarmoh, left, chose not to participate in a 100 runoff at trials, conceding third place to Allyson Felix and keeping her Olympic relays spot.

But, as it turned out a little later, it was even closer than that. After two photo finish reviews -- one from the outside track camera and the other from the inside camera -- USA Track and Field determined that Felix and Tarmoh finished in a dead heat for third place at 11.068 seconds.

Which presents a bit of a dilemma. Only three USA runners can advance to the Olympics in an event and USA Track and Field officials said they weren't sure how to break the third-place tie. "We don't have a procedure in place," USATF spokesperson Jill Geer said.

Geer said USA Track and Field has not ruled out a runoff between Felix and Tarmoh. "They have not ruled anything out at this time," Geer said early Saturday evening, adding she didn't know when a decision might be reached.

And track and field is supposed to be simple.

Simple, and often cruel. Consider the women's 100-meter hurdles, where the electronic results board quickly flashed the names of Dawn Harper and Kelli Wells as the top two finishers. Long seconds passed before the board flashed who was third, Crawford or Jones.

Jones stood yards from the finish line, staring up at the electronic results board, seeing the times for Harper and Wells and praying that when the third-place finisher appeared, it would be her name.

"That's the worst," Jones said. "Dawn experienced it in 2008 when you're just waiting for your name to pop up. I knew I was kind of in the mix, but I didn't know the placing. I just dove deep. They said, 'Lolo maybe for third,' and I said a quick prayer and that's when my name popped up."

When it did, her body fell forward to the track in joy and relief. She then leaped to her feet and raised her arms in triumph and took a victory lap with Harper and Wells. Crawford, meanwhile, quickly left the track.

But at least the two hurdlers knew the correct result, unlike the 100, in which Tarmoh and Felix left the track misinformed about who had qualified for the Olympic team.

[+] EnlargeLolo Jones
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesLolo Jones finished third in Saturday's 100-meter hurdles final to make the U.S. Olympic team.

"To edge someone of that caliber always feels good," Tarmoh said of beating the much better known Felix. "I'm still speechless and excited by the whole situation. I'm so excited to be on the Olympic team and that all the hard work has paid off."

"I'm just excited to be a part of this team and I'm excited for Jeneba who also made the team," 100 winner Carmelita Jeter said while sitting next to Tarmoh at the post-race news conference. "We have to go over there and represent for the red, white and blue and I'm most definitely sure that we'll both do that."

Shortly after Jeter said that, it was not definitely sure Tarmoh would be in London.

In addition to the closeness of the race, the confusion came because when race timers looked at the partially obscured body images from the inside camera photo, they initially posted Tarmoh as the unofficial third-place finisher on the results board.

"Timers then immediately called referees to notify them of a potential dead heat," USATF said later in a release. "The photo-finish image, shot at 3,000-frames-per-second, was then analyzed by timers and referees and unanimously ruled to be a dead heat based on visual evidence."

However USATF determines the third-place finisher, Felix and Tarmoh have other chances to make the Olympic team. The 200 is Felix's best event -- she calls it her baby -- though Tarmoh is not considered a top contender. They also can be selected to the relay team pool.

Making this a little more interesting -- and maybe stickier -- is Felix and Tarmoh both run for Nike and are training partners. Asked about the possibility of a protest when she was still under the impression she finished fourth, Felix said, "I haven't given it any thought at all. That's my teammate who got third and I'm very happy for her, so it is what it is."

Unless, of course, it isn't.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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