The stage was set for a historic showdown. The one-on-one race between two of the world’s fastest women was to be broadcast during prime-time on network television. Such a competition was unprecedented in track and field, and unlikely to ever be duplicated again. On the line, the final spot on the United States Olympic team in the 100 meter dash. Anticipation was building rapidly for the rare track and field spectacle. Only, it would never materialize. The runoff between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh was called off the day it was supposed to take place, less than 24 hours after it had first been announced. Shockingly, Tarmoh made the decision to forego the race and concede the spot on the 100 meter squad to Felix.
Flashback to a few days prior. Lined up in starting blocks across the track were the finalists in the women’s 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. The starter’s gun fired, and off they went. Exactly 10.92 seconds later, crossing the line first was one of the favorites, Carmelita Jeter. She was followed closely by Tianna Madison. Claiming the all-important third place position was Jeneba Tarmoh. Wait, or was it Allyson Felix. Tarmoh was initially declared the unofficial winner, but the sprinters finished so close together it was difficult to be certain who had the edge. Upon further review, it was determined that Tarmoh and Felix crossed the line at precisely the same time. It was a tie.
The surprising outcome caught nearly everyone off guard, including USA Track and Field, the national governing body of the sport. Amazingly, in an event frequently decided by tenths or hundredths of a second, there was no rule established to determine the outcome of a race in the case of a tie. USATF scrambled to formulate a tiebreaker, and elected to leave the final decision in the hands of the athletes. Tarmoh and Felix, friends and training partners, were given the option of either a coin-flip, a 100 meter rematch, or one of them could simply allow the other to have the spot on the team. It wasn’t until a few days later that the resolution was announced. Both athletes had wanted to focus on the 200 meters before worrying further about the 100. Felix, a 200 meter specialist, won the final handily, while Tarmoh finished fifth. Following the race there was speculation Felix may let Tarmoh have the spot in the 100, since Felix had already qualified for the Olympics in London. Instead, on the final day of the Trials, the two said they had agreed to have a runoff.
Tarmoh’s decision to cancel the runoff may be viewed as giving up, or even seen as an indicator of a fear of losing. It seems more likely however, that what she did was a selfless act, the kind of act that unfortunately has become quite rare in sports. Almost as rare as a tie in the Olympic Trials. She knew how important the race was to her training partner. Something about participating in the runoff just didn’t feel right to Tarmoh, who told the Associated Press, “If I was at peace, I would have run. My heart was not at peace with running.” For Tarmoh to even get to a point in her career where she was able to advance all the way to the finals of the 100 meters at the U.S. Trials, she had to be an incredibly determined athlete. Running at such a high level goes beyond natural talent and requires extraordinary motivation and intense training. To question Tarmoh’s competitive spirit is unfair, and frankly, a shame. Felix meanwhile, was unwilling to concede her spot, citing the value of the 100 in preparing her for her specialty, the 200. Neither Felix nor Tarmoh deserves a bit of blame for their decisions. They were caught in a scenario they didn’t want to be in, and never should have been placed in to begin with.
Tarmoh felt like she was treated unjustly by USATF. As she put it, “After I ran the 100 and saw my name as third place on the scoreboard, took my victory lap, got a medal, went to the press conference, and then they tell me that you don’t have third place anymore? It kind of broke my heart a little bit.” USATF handled the situation poorly at best. After discarding their original decision and declaring a tie, USATF put the two competitors in an awful spot by placing upon them the burden of choosing how to break the tie. Tarmoh, Felix, and every other athlete at the Trials was there to compete and attempt to make the U.S. Olympic squad, not create rules and procedures that should have been established long ago. The irony of it all is that USATF jumped at the chance to turn its own embarrassment into a promotional opportunity for track and field. Admittedly, the runoff would have made for compelling television, shining the spotlight on the sport for a night. The problem is, it would have come at the expense of the athletes, and that’s a cost that’s never worthwhile.
Jonathan Lloyd, “Southern California’s Carmelita Jeter Bound for London Olympics in 100 Meters”, NBC Southern California
Ken Belson and Mary Pilon, “Felix’s 200-Meter Win May Help Settle the 100”, The New York Times
Elliot Almond and Jeff Faraudo, “Family of Jeneba Tarmoh glad she followed her heart”, Mercury News