Photo finish examiner details how trials race was deemed a dead heat
The minutes after the women's 100 meters tell a story that stretches back decades
Roger Jennings, chief photo finish examiner, walked SI.com through the process
Jennings said he would call it the same way every time if he had to it over again
EUGENE, Ore. -- At roughly 20 minutes past six last Saturday evening at Hayward Field, eight women ran the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. The first three finishers would earn individual places on the U.S. team for the London Olympic Games. It's an overwritten truth that such trials as these are among the most emotionally punishing contests across the landscape of all sports: Four years of training, one race to succeed or fail. Four years -- or forever -- to live with it. But make no mistake, it's a truth just the same. There's desperation in the air in those last few minutes before the gun.
In the 11 seconds it took to run that 100-meter race, and in the approximately 45 minutes that followed, track and field detoured into a very odd place and remains there to this day, a resolution no closer than it was in the slanting shadows of an early summer night. Carmelita Jeter, who has been the fastest woman in the world for the last three years, won the race. Tianna Madison, a one-time world champion in the long jump suddenly turned sprinter, was second.
Behind them came athletes at opposite ends of the professional spectrum (yet who train together on the same track at UCLA, with the same coach, Bobby Kersee). In Lane Two was Allyson Felix, a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the 200 meters, three-time world champion and one of the most prominent track Olympians of the last decade. In Lane One was Jeneba Tarmoh, 22, who made her first worlds team last summer. Their compensation and endorsement packages are hundreds of thousands of dollars apart.
Their finish was declared a dead heat that will be broken in the near future (or some time before the 100 meters begins Aug. 3 in London). This story is not about that resolution, or about the fact that USA Track and Field did not have in place a procedure for breaking such a tie, which is unconscionable. This story, in these words and video above, is about the minutes that followed the finish of the race, a story that's told in hundredths of a second, but stretches across two decades of American track and field history, from a Manhattan hotel room to a crow's nest at the top of Hayward Field. It's about how the most sensitive technology on earth still requires human assistance in track and field. It's about the difference between a torso, the wheel of a bicycle or the nose of a horse.
Every day of the Olympic trials, Roger Jennings, 45, sits at the far right end of the officials' booth at the top of the Hayward Field grandstand, a majestic, green structure with a cantilevered roof that keeps everyone under it dry. Jennings is the chief photo finish examiner for Company X, which handles results and timing for not just the trials, but dozens of other major competitions. This is the subcontractor for Company Z, which created and manufactures the photo finish technology. Because of highly restrictive sponsor arrangements that could damage their business, I have been asked not to name their companies. But if you Google Roger Jennings of Company X or marketing director Giles Norton of Company Z in conjunction with photo finish technology, you'll find their company names.
Jennings' father, Tom Jennings, founded Company X in 1992. A native of Long Beach, Calif., Tom Jennings, 70, was in the 1970s the manager of the influential Pacific Coast Track Club, which included the likes of high-jumper Dwight Stones and shot-putter George Woods. Many in the track world consider Jennings the first "agent" in the sport, in the days when athletes were paid under the table by meet promoters.
In 1992, Tom Jennings was in New York City for the national indoor championships on the boards at Madison Square Garden. As Jennings recalls, he ran into Howard Schmertz, the legendary director of the Millrose Games at the meet headquarters hotel, the Penta, on Seventh Avenue across from the Garden. Jennings said, "Howard told me, 'You gotta go see what they've got in room whatever, 237 or something."'
That was veteran track official and computer technology specialist Bob Podkaminer's room. Podkaminer was letting University of Maine graduate Doug DeAngelis sleep on his floor and use the room to show off a new photo finish system that he had developed, and which would become the foundation of Company Z. (Feel free to Google DeAngelis, too). "At that time, we were driving around to track meets in Doug's Volkswagen," Norton said. "And sleeping on a lot of hotel room floors."
Remember the name of DeAngelis's host: Bob Podkaminer. He will be back soon. Track and field is a small town.
Jennings, then 51, threw his professional energies into developing a company that could use DeAngelis' system. The first time he used it formally was in the spring of 1992 at a meet involving high schools from Hanover, N.H.; Essex Junction, Vt.; and Nashua, N.H. (Jennings was living in New Hampshire at the time). Roger Jennings had grown up a track geek, devouring statistics and reading his father's full pre-Internet collection of Track and Field News hard copies. In college, he ran a 4:00.2 mile at Emporia (Kansas). When his father started Company X, Jennings became an employee; he now owns a 49 percent stake. (The company has six employees, road warriors all).
Roger Jennings has since become one of the most prominent photo finish judges in the world, and the only American member of the international track federation's seven-member photo finish judges' panel.
Last Saturday afternoon, Jennings watched the women's 100 meters with his naked eyes. "I try to watch the first-place finisher," he said Tuesday. "I'm still a track fan." As soon as the race finished, Jennings did what he always does, and what he has done, literally, thousands of times. He turned his eyes to the laptop in front of him and looked at the photo finish picture that's frozen on the screen.
The picture, taken with a camera that shoots 3,000 frames per second, captures and freezes each of the runners at the instant they cross the finish line. Yet defining that moment is what becomes complex and distinctly more imprecise than one might expect. Here is why: In track and field, an athlete is defined as having crossed the finish line when his or her torso breaks the plane of the finish. But since humans are built differently from each other, and move differently from each other, even the most sensitive technology cannot determine flawlessly when that moment occurs. Often arms, feet or Gail Devers' hair crosses the line first, but none of those things count. Which is where Jennings' eyes come into the picture.
"In horse racing, which I've done, it's easy: You go by the horse's nose," Jennings said. "In auto racing, the front of the car. In speedskating, by the skate. In cycling, by the wheel. It's the first thing that crosses the line. In track and field, it's the torso. And there is subjectivity in determining where the torso is. That's what we got into in the women's 100 meters."
(An aside here: Sports fans are increasingly strident in their demand for technological solutions to competitive uncertainties. Track races would seem to be ripe for this type of intervention but, in fact, the torso dilemma makes it impossible. There is a distinct human element).
Tuesday morning in the conference room at his Eugene hotel, Jennings walked SI.com through the process that he undertook following the controversial race.
(And right here, props to the running website LetsRun.com for first posting a cursory interview with Jennings after the race last Saturday night; the attempt here is to tell a fuller story. But they got him first.).