Jeneba Tarmoh, left, and Allyson Felix were scheduled to run Monday night to decide the final spot on the U.S. Olympic team in the women’s 100-meter dash.
Ties are roughly as popular in the United States as KGB agents.
As a culture, we live for clear-cut winners and losers. A tie, as many a Pop Warner coach has said, is like kissing your sister. Settling for a tie is un-American and it’s unacceptable, even to members of the noble press corps – just look at one of history’s most famous headlines, “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.”
Sometimes, though, we’re forced to recognize that a tie did indeed occur. Last week, for example, U.S. sprinters Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix finished in a dead heat in the 100-meter dash trial for a spot on the Olympic team.
The finish-line photo, so often relied upon to determine the winner in close contests, only confirmed that there was none.
At race’s end, Olympic officials struggled to find a fair solution, eventually settling on a run-off or coin flip depending on the athletes’ preferences. The fiasco was resolved when Tarmoh dropped out Monday morning, but not before it flummoxed an entire nation’s worth of win-or-go-home devotees.
The truth is, nothing makes us more uncomfortable than a legitimate draw. Baseball, America’s beloved pastime, does not allow for a game to end until a winner emerges. Basketball is the same: Who could forget the six-overtime epic Connecticut and Syracuse played to in the 2009 Big East tournament? And although the National Football League permits regular-season ties (after one overtime period), the event is rare enough that some players — most notably quarterback Donovan McNabb — didn’t know it existed until it happened to them.
Although individual rules vary, each of these sports has the luxury of an easy, clear-cut tie-breaking system: The teams simply keep on playing extra periods until someone pulls ahead. Felix and Tarmoh weren’t so lucky.
It’s not that nobody could find a realistic solution — a run-off would have likely settled the matter. But the 100m dash, like other individual race events, is a singular effort. Athletes train to run the race once, and run it well; asking these women to race again is not akin to asking golfers to play an extra hole or basketball players a five-minute overtime. Those tie-breaking systems are simply extensions of the same contest, while a 100m run-off would be an entirely new contest.
That’s why a solution as seemingly absurd as a coin flip was proposed to settle the race. That’s why officials in these sports go to incredible lengths to determine a clear winner, even establishing a touch-sensitive pad on the ends of Olympic pools to determine finish times down to hundredths of a second.
Perhaps because she realized this, or perhaps because she wanted the older Felix to have a chance at an Olympic bid in her prime, Tarmoh withdrew from the run-off.
“I just said that my heart would not be in the race at all,” the 22-year-old told NBC. “I was sure by the time I left the track.”
It was a gracious move by Tarmoh. But no matter what happens to the U.S. track team at the Games, a cloud of uncertainty will always hang over the effort. No one knows who should have been declared the winner of that race, or what Tarmoh might have achieved in London.
America’s obsession with winning outright is easy to mock. But in this situation, at least, the whole world would be a lot more comfortable with a clear result.
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