Don't blame Tarmoh for no runoff

EUGENE, Ore. -- The 100-meter tiebreaker runoff could have been great for a sport that desperately needs good publicity. An unprecedented one-on-one race in front of a national prime-time television audience with an Olympic spot on the line, it could have brought in new fans and created important name recognition ahead of the Games.

"This is reality TV at its best. This is reality," track legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee said. "You've got everything: emotion, the drama. But you just don't have the cast."

That is a problem. USA Track and Field can blame itself for that.

The morning after agreeing to a Monday runoff against Allyson Felix, Jeneba Tarmoh changed her mind and officially withdrew from the race seven and a half hours before its scheduled start. It isn't the end of the world for her -- Tarmoh will go to London in the relay pool and is an alternate for the 100 should Felix, Carmelita Jeter or Tianna Madison withdraw -- but what could have been must-see TV became another fiasco for American track and field.

This is why you don't leave tiebreaker decisions to the athletes involved.

Tarmoh's decision makes her look bad -- she committed to a fair runoff, then backed out -- but she never should have been in this position in the first place. It was bad enough that USATF did not have a tiebreaking protocol in place ahead of time, as does virtually every other sport. It was worse that it passed the buck onto the athletes.

"It's unfortunate for both her and Allyson to be in that position," Joyner-Kersee said. "I'm sad for both of them, but I thought they had agreed to do a runoff and, unfortunately, it's not going to be."

After agreeing to the runoff, Tarmoh told reporters Sunday she felt like she had been robbed, that she was the legitimate third-place finisher. I can understand why she might feel this way. She was announced as the third-place finisher after the race. She was allowed to run a victory lap as an Olympic qualifier. She even was presented to the media in a news conference as the third-place finisher.

However Tarmoh might feel, though, she did not finish third; she finished tied for third. An examination of the photo finish showed it was a dead heat.

That was USATF's first misstep. No third-place finisher should have been declared until after both camera angles had been reviewed. That way, neither Tarmoh nor Felix would have had to go through the emotional roller coaster of being told one outcome only to learn it wasn't accurate.

USATF's second mistake was not having a tiebreaking procedure in place. Too reliant on electronic timing that breaks things down to a thousandth of a second, it assumed there could not be a tie, so why have a policy? Well, because clearly ties do occur. Swimming uses electronic timekeepers and it has tiebreakers in place in the form of swimoffs.

Mistake No. 3 was USATF hastily writing a tiebreaking policy that was confusing, involved and subject to emotion. It put the pressure on the athletes to decide whether the tie should be settled by voluntary withdrawal, runoff or coin flip. There was no deadline for when they had to decide other than a vague declaration that it needed to be made by the final day of the Olympic trials. Or the day after. Or perhaps the day after that. Sometime.

Both runners wanted to focus on the 200 meters, so they did not even discuss the tiebreaker until after that race Saturday afternoon. The issue dragged on, taking away attention from other athletes.

Tarmoh and Felix finally met Sunday with their coach, Bobby Kersee, their agents and USATF officials, including Joyner-Kersee (who is married to Bobby). Joyner-Kersee said the two-hour meeting was friendly, but there were also tears involved. She said she was surprised and disappointed by Tarmoh changing her mind.

"Because I hurt for both of them. ... They're both great girls," she said. "I don't want this for Jeneba, and I don't want this for Allyson."

Tarmoh, 22, had never been in the national spotlight before. She is dealing with an issue none of us have faced before, let alone at such a young age. I feel for her. But she should have raced Felix in the scheduled runoff because she should not have had a choice in the matter. The tiebreaking rules should have been in place ahead a time, and though the rules weren't, they should have been written so the decision was not left up to the athletes. The rules should have said a tie will be settled by a runoff, that the runoff must be held by a specific date and that the runners must race or forfeit their spot.

Because racing is what track athletes do. Declining to race makes you look bad.

But not nearly as bad as USATF looks.