So it’s over. They’ve done it: USA Track and Field officials have crushed sprinter Jeneba Tarmoh. It took only a little more than a week of the governing body’s nonstop incompetence to do it.
Tarmoh, apparently emotionally ruined from the botched handling of her dead-heat with Allyson Felix at the Olympic trials, has withdrawn from Monday night’s runoff for the final spot in the Olympic 100-meter sprint.
“In my heart of hearts, I just feel like I earned the third spot,’’ she said Sunday. “I almost feel like I was kind of robbed.’’
Of course she does. From the start, this thing seemed like a setup — whether it was or not.
"This is a Nike and NBC Sports deal," her high school coach, Steve Nelson, told the San Jose Mercury News. "This is Jeneba against the world. She feels like it’s everybody against her."
It was always going to feel that way. Felix is the darling of the sport, the person who was going to save track and field from its steroid-cheat image. She is great, well-spoken and with marketable good looks. Tarmoh is an unknown.
And when they finished the 100 meters during the trials, Tarmoh had been declared the third-place finisher, getting the third and final Olympic spot in the event. The times went up, and she was .001 seconds faster than Felix.
She was handed a flag. She paraded it. She went into a press conference and talked about what an honor it was to beat a legend. She and Felix are training partners, too.
And a few hours later, the USATF said it had looked at the photos, taken at 3,000 frames a second, and determined that the race had actually been a dead-heat. One photo was obstructed, and the other — which the USATF posted on its website — appeared to be a tie.
So what happens in case of a tie? In football, they go to overtime. In baseball, extra innings. In tennis, a tiebreaker. In high jump, the person who missed the fewest jumps along the way is the winner.
In sprints? Well, it had never occurred to the USATF, after all these years, to have a procedure for how to break ties. So officials quickly formed official sounding committees and ruled that Felix and Tarmoh could have a runoff or flip a coin. It was up to them. Or, one of them could drop out. That last official tiebreaker, dropping out, always seemed supicious. Why would anyone do that? It came off like a nod to sponsors to make an offer to Tarmoh.
There was no way it was going to work out. And the thing is, when you are making up rules after the fact, and dealing with one corporate superstar and one unknown, you have to make everything transparent to avoid the appearance of a fix.
That doesn’t mean this wasn’t actually a tie. It’s just that it looks bad.
Apparently, even Tarmoh was suspicious.
I was at the race, and at the time wrote that corporate interests and Nike and NBC had too much influence in the sport and too much money invested in Felix’s success:
“Let’s just say that Felix is not going to be swallowed up by this. Tarmoh might be.’’
It was the unknown that caused it. If the USATF had a procedure in the first place calling for a runoff, then that would have been fine.
If it had something that said, say, whoever had run the faster 100 over the previous six months would be declared the winner? Fine.
But it had nothing. And the issue swirled and swirled, ruining the whole trials. (Did you even remember that Ashton Eaton broke the decathlon world record?)
First, the USATF said that any runoff or coin flip would have to happen by Sunday, when the trials ended. Why? Who knows? The USATF apparently had decided to make up another rule.
Tarmoh had agreed to the runoff, but told reporters Sunday that “this decision was really hard for me to make. I was pushed into a corner.
They said, ‘If you don’t make a decision (between runoff or coin toss), you give your spot up.’ I work too hard to just give my spot up. I had to say it was a runoff.’’
Give an assist in the failure, too, to Bobby Kersee, coach of both Felix and Tarmoh. He spent a week hiding his runners, keeping them from talking publicly, while fanning flames himself. He complained that the USATF was jeopardizing the health of his runners by insisting they run by Sunday, after running the 200 meters on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
He mothered Tarmoh to death, smothering her, while she knew that everyone was pulling for Felix. So Tarmoh went on to fail to qualify in the 200 Saturday night. She is eligible for the Olympic 400-meter relay team, but by Sunday, she was a wreck.
As it stands, Felix will be on the Olympic team in the 100 meters and in the 200. She’ll be a gold-medal favorite in the 200 and a long shot in the 100. She’ll also be eligible for relays. It’s exactly the buildup track and field had wanted.