Felix-Tarmoh runoff in jeopardy
Felix and Tarmoh finished in a dead heat for third place in the women's 100 meters
USA Track and Field is trying to convince Tarmoh to run Monday's tiebreaker
Tarmoh decided to pull out of the runoff with Felix, but has not officially withdrawn
EUGENE, Ore. -- According to a source, late Sunday night officials from USA Track and Field were working to convince sprinter Jeneba Tarmoh to participate in Monday evening's unprecedented tie-breaking 100-meter runoff at Hayward Field to decide the final individual spot on the U.S. women's 100 team in London. Tarmoh, 22, and training partner Allyson Felix, 26, a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the 200 are scheduled to race at shortly after 5 p.m., Pacific Time. NBC has committed to televising the runoff live to the Eastern and Central time zones, cutting into coverage of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.
However, Sunday evening Tarmoh had decided to pull out of the race, although she had not officially withdrawn. Tarmoh had agreed to the runoff in an emotional meeting early Sunday afternoon. At the meeting, an SI.com story from June 26, in which chief photo finish judge Roger Jennings detailed the process by which last Saturday's dead heat was called, was discussed by representatives of all parties. In that story and accompanying video Jennings explains how he called Tarmoh the winner and then after asking for USATF officials to review his call because of the importance of third place in the Olympic Trials, was overruled.
Later Sunday, in an afternoon interview with The Associated Press, Tarmoh said, "In my heart of hearts, I just feel like I earned the third spot. I almost feel like I was kind of robbed.'' According to the source, any confusion about the photo finish is only part of Tarmoh's reticence to participate in the runoff. A first-year professional, Tarmoh is also exhausted from the week-long controversy and was disinclined to participate from the beginning.
Late Sunday night a USATF official asked SI.com for a copy of the Jennings story and said the organization was on a "fact-finding mission.'' According to sources, USATF officials were meeting with timing officials Sunday night, seeking clarification.
While the path to setting up Monday's runoff has been a carnival of ill-preparedness and bureaucratic sloth on the part of USATF, the race itself is likely to be one of the most-watched domestic track and field contests in the history of the sport. It removes the dense and slow-moving clutter that makes the sport largely inaccessible to a mass audience and reduces it to a one-on-one, high-stakes test of speed that will unfold in less time than a good NFL kickoff return.
"We're going to see a dramatization of what our sport can potentially be in the 21st century,'' said former U.S. Olympic gold medal relay sprinter Jon Drummond. "This is going to be reality TV at its grandest.''
USA Track and Field announced the runoff Sunday afternoon in Eugene, Ore., which was scheduled as the last day of the trials, but now they have practically been extended by one day for the inclusion of a single event to decide the last open place on the team that competes in London at the end of this month. Plans for staging the event unfolded in real time Sunday afternoon.
"I found out at 2 o'clock, same time as the media,'' said Vin Lanana, track coach at Oregon, co-chairman of local organizing committee and in effect the meet director. "It's not simple. Safety and security are the issues. But we'll put on a show.''
If she runs, Tarmoh will contest the race in lane four and Felix in lane five. If the race were to finish in another dead heat, a coin flip would decide the third member of the team.
The stakes are decidedly higher for Tarmoh. Felix is a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the 200 and on Saturday night at Hayward secured her third individual Olympic berth with a stunning victory in the 200 in a time of 21.69 seconds, the sixth-fastest time in history and fastest by any runner in 14 years. Tarmoh is trying to earn her first Olympic berth. Both sprinters, regardless of the outcome of the runoff, are officially members of the Olympic team in the 4X100 relay pool. It is unclear which might run in the final of the event, if Team USA makes the final, or which might run only in the rounds.
Accordingly, the two women come to this intensely pressurized event from vastly different angles and with subtly polarized attitudes: Felix, the international veteran and a well-compensated star in the vertical world of track and field, dislikes the runoff, but accepts it professionally.
"Given the options placed in front us,'' she said Sunday. "The best thing is to just run. I think, more than anything else, it's just all going to be really weird. It's not going to be neat or anything like that. Just weird.''
Tarmoh, meanwhile, a relative rookie in her first full year as a professional runner, is bitter, still feels the strange timeline of eight days earlier, when she was initially declared the winner of the race (see explanation below), and then after emotionally celebrating with a victory lap, was told that instead the race was a dead heat.
"I'm not that excited at all," Tarmoh told The Associated Press Sunday. "This decision was really hard for me to make. I was pushed into a corner. They said if you don't make a decision, you give your spot up. I work too hard to just give my spot up. I had to say it was a runoff."
Sunday's announcement brought some hope for closure after eight days of uncertainty, since Felix and Tarmoh crossed the line together on the evening of June 23 behind winner Carmelita Jeter and runner-up Tianna Madison. Initially the Hayward scoreboard showed that Tarmoh had secured third place with a time of 11.067 seconds, with Felix second in 11.068. But shortly afterward, USATF declared the race a dead heat.
(In an interview with SI.com three days after the race, chief photo finish judge Roger Jennings described the pressured scene in the booth above Hayward Field. It was Jennings whose eyesight designated Tarmoh the unofficial third-place finisher, but it was also Jennings who protested his own decision and called for a USATF ruling because the high stakes in place at the Olympic Trials. In any other race in the U.S., it is likely that Jennings's initial ruling would have stood and Tarmoh would have been named to the team, with Felix as an alternate. Jennings will also be the photo finish judge for the runoff.)
Shortly after the dead heat was declared, USATF officials admitted in an awkward press conference that it did not have in place procedures to break a tie in the event of a third-place tie at the Olympic Trials. Twenty-fours hours later, on Sunday night at Hayward Field in Eugene, at another press conference that was more surreal than awkward, USATF unveiled tiebreaking procedures that included "coin-toss protocols,'' but essentially left it up to Felix, Tarmoh and their shared coach, Bob Kersee, to decide the time and place for a possible runoff. USATF said only that it would all be decided by Sunday night (and in the end, even that promise was broken).
What unfolded next was an uncomfortable week in which a frustrated Kersee frequently called reporters late at night to lobby for an extension beyond the Sunday deadline, with sparse response from USATF. Felix and Tarmoh ran qualifying and semifinal rounds of the 200 and were whisked through the media zone like celebrities stalked by paparazzi.
Theories abounded, the most popular of which was that Felix would decline her place in the 100 to concentrate on her better event. On Sunday, Felix said that was never in play, because she has been running 100 races throughout the spring and early summer to sharpen her speed for the 200. Her 21.69 owes in no small part to the three 100s that preceded it.
"For me, it's always been about the 200, and the 100 makes me better in the 200,'' said Felix. "So I'm going to fight for that 100 meters.''
Another theory was that shoe-and-apparel giant Nike, which sponsors both athletes, would get involved on Felix's behalf, because the company's financial commitment to Felix is far more significant. There is no evidence that happened, but such action seldom leaves a trail. There was also speculation that NBC, recognizing that a runoff makes much better television than a coin flip, would push to make it happen. (And NBC's freelance production trucks were contracted to leave Eugene no later than Tuesday morning.) NBC officials said Sunday that the network did not get involved and, in fact, will incur significant cost to keep a production in place for the runoff.
The intensity grew on Saturday night with Felix's spectacular 200 performance. Tarmoh finished only fifth in the race, leaving the 100 as her only Olympic possibility. Both runners said after the race that they would meet and decide together. Both said they talked frequently on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Felix said those conversations did not center on whether there would be a runoff, but how to deal with the runoff.
"They were difficult conversations,'' said Felix. "We were both emotional.''
At noon on Sunday there was a more official meeting that took place at a Eugene hotel. Along with Kersee, two representatives of USATF, and agents for both athletes were present. After two hours, a runoff was declared and track has been given an unexpected gift of sorts: A disaster that's become a showcase. But it is not without peril.
The last such match in track and field was a made-for-television 150 race between 1996 Olympic 100 gold medalist Donovan Bailey of Canada and 200-400 gold medalist Michael Johnson of the United States. The idea behind that race was a well-intentioned ploy to attract attention to track and field (and make piles of money for the participants), but it collapsed in disaster when Johnson pulled with an injury. The last truly anticipated showdown came when Johnson and Maurice Greene faced off the in the 200 at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Sacramento, Calif. That time, both athletes pulled up with injuries.
On Sunday, Greene, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist in the 100, said, "I think [the runoff] is great. It gives our sport more attention. People will be talking about this for a long time. There is going to be a lot of pressure on the girls and I think the one that handles it best will win. That will be Allyson.''
But Felix also sounded one, last ominous tone in a serpentine story: "The most important thing is staying healthy,'' she said. "I'm going to warm up and if I feel anything [wrong], I'm going to pull out.''