Outcome of Olympic trial shouldn’t hinge on the flip of a coin

The U.S. Olympic track and field team faces the bizarre and dreadful prospect of having a sprinter in the premier event determined not by the clock but by a coin toss.

Heads? Or tails?

Will the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials be reduced to a game show, with celebrity host Bruce Jenner standing at the finish line, whipping the Hayward Field crowd into a frenzy by asking, “Who will be our grand prize winner of a ticket to London and who gets a parting gift? Heads? Or tails?”

Then the cameras will zoom in on the athletes’ faces and the airborne coin as the announcer intones, “It’s up, it’s flipping, it could land either way, it’s … heads! George Washington is about to be kissed!”

And, finally, the slo-mo replay.

All because of a tie.

A tie? In 2012? We can split atoms but we can’t split milliseconds? We’ve got MRIs and microchips, infrared cameras, light-speed computers and drones that could zap a grasshopper in your garden but we can’t figure out who beat whom in a footrace?

Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh might have to rely on luck instead of their legs to get to the Summer Olympics in the 100-meter dash.

Felix and Tarmoh tied for third Saturday in the identical time of 11.068 seconds. They leaned across the line at the same one-thousandth of a second. It was a photo finish, but the photo didn’t provide an answer. It also showed the two women in a dead heat.

There was no protocol to resolve such an extreme situation. So, over the course of 24 hours, officials and athletes made one up.

Felix and Tarmoh can agree to break the tie with a runoff or a coin toss. Or one can decline her spot; both are also competing in the 200 meters starting Thursday. If they can’t agree, it’s a runoff.

Please, for the sake of their sport and athletes everywhere, let’s hope they run. Or one could let this sideshow fizzle by opting to focus all her energies in London on the 200. That’s assuming they both qualify in the 200 final on Saturday. Felix is four-time world champion in the 200, and she desperately wants an Olympic gold in her signature event. If Tarmoh does not finish in the top three in the deep 200 field, she would be reluctant to forego a spot in the 100 — yet so would Felix, who is attempting the big double.

The two are friends and training partners in Los Angeles under coach Bobby Kersee, who knows this must be settled by the conclusion of the meet Sunday. So far, they’re going to wait and see how things play out in the 200. Amy Deem, University of Miami and Olympic women’s coach, confirmed that both have spots in the 400-relay pool.

The U.S. trials are rightfully known as the world’s cruelest track meet. The U.S. squad is “the toughest team to make.” Only the top three finishers in individual events qualify. America’s D team would beat most countries’ best.

Swimming has broken ties in the 50-meter freestyle with swim-offs. But what if a dead heat occurred in the 800-meter freestyle or the 26.2-mile marathon? Unlikely, but a do-over would ruin those athletes for the Olympics one month later.

Swimming also has the benefit of the touch pad. That electronic arbiter was crucial in deciding the outcome of Michael Phelps’ .01-second fingernail finish ahead of Serbia’s Milorad Cavic in the 100 butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Games. Initially, to the naked eye, it looked like Phelps had been out-touched and his quest for eight gold medals was over. There was a question about whether Cavic had applied enough pressure to the pad. But judges said the Omega timing system did not lie, and a dramatic underwater photograph confirmed it.

In track, the naked eye is necessary to interpret photo-finish images, which are recorded at 3,000 frames per second.

Felix and Tarmoh were so close they defied both clock and camera. This could make for a fascinating physics dissertation, entitled “The Felix-Tarmoh Effect.”

At first, the timer thought Tarmoh’s torso had crossed the line first, but he wasn’t sure and immediately requested a review. Tarmoh’s name flashed on the scoreboard prematurely. She was led to the media room, where she talked about her joy at making the team.

Felix was distraught.

Five meet officials examined the photo with the thoroughness of CIA lab techs. One body part thought to be Tarmoh’s torso was her arm. It was a tie.

Felix has the more impressive résumé, but in creating the tiebreaking procedure, officials and athletes chose to stay true to the spirit of the trials, which rejects politicking in favor of a no-excuses, prove-it-now format.

The “drawing of lots” method has been used for eons in all sorts of situations, from who cleans the toilet to who gets on the lifeboat to who kicks off first in a football game.

But in an event as simple as running from point A to point B, it would be a shame to reduce it to a tug on a slot-machine lever.

Have Felix and Tarmoh do what they do best: Run. But just in case the race ends in another dead heat, there’s a tiebreaker for the tiebreaker.

Heads. Or tails.

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