USATF Announces It's Dead Heat Procedure: A Rule Still With Loopholes

A Run-Off Is Great If Both Athletes Agree, Otherwise A Coin Toss Needs To Be The Default

by: Steve Soprano, Employee 1.1
June 24, 2012

Following yesterday's Jeneba Tarmoh, Allyson Felix 100m tie fiasco, where there was a tie for the 3rd Olympic spot, USATF announced the procedure it will use to break this and all future ties for 3rd place. This only applies when 3rd place is used to break a tie that will decide a slot on an US National or Olympic Team.

You can read the full statement here or watch the press conference with questions here. It goes into more detail (sort of), but the important part is as follows:

    1) If either athlete declines his or her position on the National Team/Olympic Team, that athlete will be named the alternate and the other athlete will assume the final available position.

    2) If neither athlete declines their position, they will be given the option to determine the tie-breaker via coin toss or by run-off.

            a. If both athletes choose the same option, that option will be utilized as the tie-breaker.

            b. If the athletes disagree on the tie-breaker, the tie will be broken by a run-off.

            c. If both athletes refuse to declare a preference regarding the method between a run off and coin toss in regards to how the tie is broken, the tie will be broken by coin toss.

Another important part that was very much emphasized in the press conference is that the Olympic team must be decided by the last day of competition (which in this case is July 1, 2012).

A Rule With A Million Loopholes

My problem with the ruling is that it cannot be universally applied in all cases. This leads to a lot of hypothetical, but possible, situations where a dead heat could happen and the current rule doesn't make sense. If they're going to make this rule-up on-the-fly to solve the current issue, they may as well write a rule that will work in all instances and can stand for all time. They shouldn't put a rule in place that will need to be re-written every time something like this happens. Also, I feel that in all cases, it is not fair to force athletes to participate in a run-off. That is the major flaw with this rule; if the athletes can't agree on one method or the other, there should be a coin toss, not a run-off. An athlete shouldn't be made to run a race they haven't agreed to, especially in this instance when the rule wasn't in place beforehand. They plan their training, their competition schedule and their whole life around a set number of rounds and races and it's not fair to back athletes into a corner, forcing them to race a one-on-one dual at a random unforeseeable time. 

The following are quick bullet points on how this rule doesn't make sense and can fail in many possible situations. The likelihood of any of these every happening is small, but the likelihood of one of them happening at some point in the history of USATF is higher. I think that pretty much all of these situations can be prevented by simply making the coin toss the default and only holding a run-off if there is agreement between both athletes.

  • What if one athlete is doubling at the Trials and the other is not? Clearly the advantage goes to the one who doesn't have a second race if that race is before the run-off. And if the run-off is before the second race (say on a rest day) then that gives them a disadvantage in their second event which is not fair either. Doubling at an Olympic Trial is hard enough without the pressure of an extra race being crammed into an already packed schedule.
  • What if one athlete gets a small injury in the race where the dead heat takes place or is injured shortly after? Not a season ending injury, but one that they need to take a few days off for to heal. Should an injured runner be forced to run again in a run-off?
  • Nothing is written about this, but Jill Geer said multiple times that run-off and Olympic team will be selected by the end of the Trials. So what if the dead heat (say in the men's 200 next Sunday) occurs on the last day of competition? Are you going to make the athletes run another race again that night? (The rule needs to take into account possibilities like this one, by saying "If a run off can not take place, a coin toss will occur".)
  • This rule is supposed to apply to all track events, but becomes more and more ridiculous as the races go up in distance. Are you going to force an athlete to re-run a 1500 on Sunday the same day of the final? What about a 5k or 10k? Situation: Matt Tegenkamp and Dathan Ritzenhein have a dead tie for 3rd in the 10,000. Ritz has a marathon background and has been running back to back 5k races in training, while Teg has more of a 5k background. Ritz knows he can come back a few days later and run a better second 10k, so he calls for the run-off and Teg is forced to run it. Should Teg be punished because he's not a marathoner when he's been training to make the Olympic 10,000 team? And are we actually going to watch two athletes run 25 laps around the track alone?
  • There is no mention of a 3-way dead heat tie. Yes, completely inconceivable, but as long as we're writing a rule lets cover all our bases. Just say any decisions not universally agreed upon with a race off will go to a coin toss. That simple.

Finally, let's conclude by talking about this particular situation with Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix. There is no way either of them should be forced into a run-off when this rule was not in place beforehand. (However, it might get track and field some attention. If they do it, it will be great, great drama and I'll be there.) They're both planning on doubling in the 200; they both came into this meet with a plan to run a certain amount of races. If the rule was in the books beforehand then there's not much the athletes could argue with, but the rule was put in place after the fact.

I will say for the record that I am not a fan of something as arbitrary as a coin toss deciding a place on an Olympic team. Personally, I hope that they both agree to the run-off as it will be exciting and great for the fans and great for the sport. But if the athletes don't agree, I feel a forced run-off is not a fair solution.

USATF Press Conference: Jill Geer Announces New Policy


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