It has garnered both controversy and praise, an unconventional finish to the women’s 400 meters final in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics that earned Shaunae Miller from the Bahamas a gold medal.
Late on Monday night, Miller was hurtling down the final stretch, barely a whisker ahead of Allyson Felix from the United States, when she vaulted from the ground and crossed the finish line in a spectacular dive. It was not immediately apparent who had won, so close had the runners been as they tore through the closing stage of the race.
But the result eventually became clear. And, much as some have criticized the manner of Miller’s victory, there can be no doubt that her action was entirely in accord with the rules.
“The first athlete whose torso (as distinguished from the head, neck, arms, legs, hands or feet) reaches the vertical plane of the closest edge of the finish line,” note the rules for the Rio games, “is the winner.”
That’s it. Nothing about feet staying on the ground, no prohibition of diving or crossing the line in an airborne fashion.
Much of the dismay expressed in the hours since stems as much as anything from the nature of the athlete pushed into second place, one who has been variously described as a person whom “nobody dislikes” and one who has “shown class every single time.”
Indeed, in an NBC interview the day after the event, world class sprinter Felix displayed no bitterness or anger at the manner of her defeat, explaining instead how she hoped to communicate a positive message to young women who might look to her as a role model.
“You’re going to have obstacles, there’s going to be adversity, but let your spirit shine through,” said Felix. “No matter how the cards are stacked against you, don’t let that get you down.”
Aside from having won an Olympic silver medal, Felix has reason to be cheerful: that medal brings her total to seven, more than any US woman in history.
Ironically, when another Olympic final finished in such a fashion – back in 2008 – the shoe was on the other foot, in terms of the nations involved, as NBC pointed out in a Twitter post.
Nor is it the first time at the 2016 Olympics that a race has ended in so nail-biting a manner, with a strong favorite defeated at the final push. Just a few days before Miller’s dive, the odds-on winner of the 200-meter backstroke, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, was eased into second place by Maya DiRado of the US – a victory snatched by a margin of 0.06 seconds.
And with regard to Miller of the Bahamas, many observers underscore the fact that there was nothing wrong with what she did – it was simply unconventional.
“What Miller did took guts,” writes Jason Diamond for Rolling Stone. “She didn't cheat, she just didn't win it the normal way.”