Why did Jeneba Tarmoh pull out of 100-meter runoff?

Jeneba Tarmoh was supposed to race Allyson Felix Monday to break a tie and see who would run the race in the London Olympics. But Tarmoh pulled out as emotions ran high. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Carmelita Jeter (r.) and Jeneba Tarmoh celebrate after the women's 100m final at the US Olympic Track and Field Trials June 23 in Eugene, Ore. Tarmoh thought she finished third, but that decision was later overturned.
USA Track & Field/REUTERS
The photo finish of Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh (front) in the 100 meters. The torso – not hands or head – must be first across the finish line.

The moment, it seemed, was made for TV. Two women. One track. An Olympic spot on the line.

Cue the lonesome whistle and tumbleweed flitting across the screen.

Problem is, it's not going to happen anymore.

In a puzzling bit of pre-Olympic theater, Jeneba Tarmoh is giving up her last chance to run the 100-meter dash in the London Olympics, pulling out of a runoff against practice partner Allyson Felix that was scheduled for prime time Monday on NBC. 

For the two women, the runoff could hardly have had higher stakes: The winner would win the right to run the race at the Olympics, the loser would be left out. The runoff became necessary when Tarmoh and Felix tied for third with identical 11.068-second times in the 100-meter final of the Olympic trials June 23. The US can field only three sprinters in the 100 meters at the London Games. 

But in the sort of soap opera that USA Track and Field (USATF) just can't seem to avoid, Tarmoh's agent e-mailed a message to USATF Monday morning: “I Jeneba Tarmoh have decided to decline my 3rd place position in the 100m dash to Allyson Felix. I understand that with this decision I am no longer running the 100m dash in the Olympic Games and will be an alternate for the event."

The question is: Why did Tarmoh back out of the runoff – especially when it appears that she had more to lose from such a move than did Felix? 

While Tarmoh has qualified to run in the 400-meter relay in London, the 100 was her last chance to qualify for an individual event. Meanwhile, Felix has already qualified for the 200 meters, in which she is a two-time Olympic silver medalist and a gold-medal favorite. For her, the runoff, while important, was also potentially another chance to sustain an injury that could put her out of her signature event.

In other words, Tarmoh needed the 100. Felix would have been an American star at the Games with or without it. 

And that might be the problem. 

Make no mistake, Tarmoh likes her training partner, but she feels that USATF is bending its rules to try to pump Felix's tires. At least, that's what her high school coach, who is in touch with Tarmoh, told The San Jose Mercury-News. 

"This is a Nike and NBC Sports deal," the coach, Steve Nelson, said. "This is Jeneba against the world. She feels like it's everybody against her."

It is easy to understand her disappointment. After the June 23 race, the chief photo finish judge Roger Jennings declared Tarmoh the third-place winner. She was given a medal. She held a press conference. Only then, did rumors begin to surface that USATF and Mr. Jennings had overruled the unofficial results and declared that Tarmoh and Felix had, in fact, tied (see video). 

To someone who took a flag-waving victory lap around the track at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., imagining herself on the blocks in London, it must have been the bitterest news imaginable.

To her, USATF took away something she earned, according to what Nelson told the Mercury-News. 

"She's not giving up her [Olympic] spot," Nelson said Monday morning. "She's not going to show up for the runoff."

No matter the sense of injustice, however, it is a curious response. If she believes USATF was out of line, some sort of appeal would seem the more likely response – and perhaps that is coming. Otherwise, the times are the times and the deadlock needs to be resolved.

Much has been made over how, mind-bogglingly, USATF has no protocol for resolving such ties. It gave the runners the option of a coin flip, a runoff, or one sprinter ceding the slot to the other. But in swimming, which does have a protocol for resolving ties, the protocol is a swim-off. So it's no great injustice to insist on a runoff if the sprinters actually tied. It's probably what USATF will adopt after this storm passes, anyway. 

The real issue appears to be whether USATF was justified in overruling the preliminary results.

It is not unprecedented for the results of close races to change well after the finish line is crossed. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, US sprinter Wallace Spearmon was taking a celebratory lap around the track after apparently winning bronze, only to learn he had been disqualified for stepping out of his lane. More than a half-hour later, the apparent silver medalist, Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles, was also disqualified. 

Tarmoh, not surprisingly, sees her case differently, and on Monday, by refusing to settle the matter on the track, she deprived USATF of its prime-time moment. 

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