2012 Olympics | July 27 - August 12
Posted: Tuesday June 26, 2012 11:26PM ; Updated: Wednesday June 27, 2012 3:08PM
Tim Layden

Photo finish (cont.)

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Allyson Felix, Jeneba Tarmoh
Jeneba Tarmoh (bottom) was at first given a time of 11.067 seconds. Allyson Felix (top) was given 11.068.
Getty Images

Jennings pulled up the finish photo on his 17-inch screen, just as it popped up automatically Saturday as the race finished. "I've seen this a million times," he said. To determine times and places, Jennings uses a wireless mouse to place a vertical line on athletes' torsos, from first to last. Once the line is in place, he inputs the lane number of the athlete, hits "enter," and the software spits out a time, and that time is immediately posted to the stadium scoreboard. He re-creates the process here: "[Lane] Six (Jeter) was easy (for first), [Lane] Four (Madison) was easy (for second)," Jennings said. "Then I saw this ... " He scrolls over to the image of Tarmoh and Jeter, clearly very close. "I went, 'Oooooffff.'"

Jennings also said, into his headset, which is connected to the infield officials (another headset is wired to the NBC broadcast support team, for whom Jennings provides immediate finish information), "Oh, sh--." He recalled Tuesday: "This is exactly what you don't want at the Olympic trials."

But Jennings went immediately to work. Times for Jeter (10.92 seconds) and Madison (10.96) were posted as soon as he had clicked enter. The camera that captures his primary image is on the infield, above the finish line. "Allyson Felix's shoulders were pretty square, so it was easy to find the torso," Jennings said. "I could see right away that Tarmoh was twisted, throwing one of her shoulders forward." This makes it more difficult to find the torso. Jennings enlarged a secondary image from the lower right corner of his laptop screen that was shot from the outside of the track. "Look at this," he said Tuesday.

Tarmoh's torso is totally obscured by her arm in the photo taken from the outside angle. "It shows nothing," Jennings said. "I'm hoping it will show me a torso position, but her torso is totally blocked. I can't see a thing."

At this point, 15 to 20 seconds have passed since the runners went through the finish line. Felix and Tarmoh are staring up at the scoreboard, awaiting their fate. Hayward is buzzing and, pointedly, so is Jennings' headset. NBC's telecast has already run over, and while no one has suggested that the network was pushing Jennings for an unduly swift resolution, referee -- wait for it -- Bob Podkaminer said, "As soon as there was a delay, there were voices in that booth who wanted something. The meet announcer wanted something. NBC wanted something. Those voices were loud."

And Jennings wanted to give them something. The right something, based on his experience. "At this point, it's been like 25 seconds," Jennings said. "That's about as long as I can take. If you're an umpire, you can't take 20 minutes to call a pitch a ball or a strike. And the torso is very much like the strike zone. I had to make a call." I asked him if he felt pressure. "There is some pressure," he said. "But I've been doing this so many years, I don't even think about it."

In any race, when Jennings can't, literally, see the athlete's torso, he uses two known data points to interpolate where the most forward point in the torso probably is. (Given Jennings' level of expertise, and after watching him work, this is a very strong use of the word "probably."). On his laptop, he adroitly located a point on Tarmoh's paper ID bib on the right side of her chest and another spot on her thrown-forward right bicep. Those were data points A and B. He determined that data point C would represent the forward-most spot on Tarmoh's torso (in the photo, it's obscured by Tarmoh's head), lined up his cursor and clicked. The scoreboard spit out 11.067 seconds. Then he clicked on the readily visible spot on Felix's torso, and the scoreboard illuminated 11.068 seconds.

Tarmoh celebrated and began a victory lap. Felix wept. Jennings immediately turned to his right to USATF official Duffy Mahoney and said, "We need to get referees in here."

(It's very important to understand here that the numbers put up on the scoreboard were unofficial, although nothing on the board conveyed this fact to the crowd, the celebrating Tarmoh or the crying Felix. Those instantaneous numbers are always unofficial. Three days after the fact, Jennings was still wondering if there was something he could have done differently. "I have control of the scoreboard," Jennings said. "I could have typed UNOFFICIAL over the whole finish order. Maybe I should have done that.")

In the ensuing minutes, several meet referees entered the booth, and it was decided by acclimation that one referee would consult with Jennings and make the determination: Bob Podkaminer, 70, who first officiated a track meet in Northern California in 1965. Podkaminer's official title on the day of the meet was men's chief running referee (he is also secretary of the USATF Rules Committee), but he has extensive experience in reviewing photo finish evidence. "Roger asked for me specifically because of the experience I have in reviewing photo finishes," Podkaminer said Tuesday in a phone interview. "If Tom Jennings bought the first (Company Z) system in 1992, I probably bought the second."

The consultation lasted more than 20 minutes. Podkaminer did not dispute Jennings' interpolation of the photo. In nearly any other instance, that result would have stood. But Podkaminer, as the representative of USA Track and Field, did not want to put himself, Jennings or the USATF in the position of defending an interpolation against an appeal. "In many cases, you can interpolate," Podkaminer said. "But these are the Olympic trials, where there has to be a more exacting standard. An interpolation is not fact. At some point, I might be asked to stand up and justify what I decided."

Jennings said, "In the end, my read was subjective. The involvement of the torso is always subjective to some degree. They (USATF) went with what they could actually see. I was overruled, and I certainly signed off on their decision. But I did my job. I called what I saw. I try to stay consistent. If I went back and read that photo 100 times, I would call it the same way every time." (That is, he would call Tarmoh the winner, based on an interpolation of where her torso was at the finish).

What took place after Podkaminer's ruling is now an unseemly chapter in track history. USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer informed media that the race was a dead heat, and that there were no procedures in place to settle it. More than 24 hours later, Geer again stood up in front of the same media and announced this procedure which, comically, includes coin toss protocols. It has been an embarrassment for the organization and the sport, and closure is scarcely nearer at this moment than on Saturday evening.

Yet the frenzy that led to the tie is clearer. In the retelling, Roger Jennings comes across as unfailingly professional. I watched him work Monday night in his crow's nest perch. He is responsible for not just finish photos, but clicking on athletes to provide splits as they run around the track and spotting for television. It is an intensely pressurized environment, intimately linked to the spectators' understanding of the meet. In the heat of battle on Saturday, he flagged himself to protect the integrity of the trials. (Not, it should be said, to protect Allyson Felix, the more famous of the sprinters in limbo. "They're pixels to us," Giles Norton said. "Not people.").

It is bittersweet, as well. Roger Jennings stood in that hotel room Tuesday, with his laptop under his arm and said, "If I hadn't protested myself, I'm not sure anyone else would have."

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