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For those of you who by some extremely unlikely set of circumstances happened to stumble upon this page, I apologize to you. For those of you who intentionally came to this page - yikes! As the title of the weblog indicates, these are my Ramblings About Whatever. There is a chance that I will ramble about just about anything (as I am in this introduction), but only a select few topics will actually make this site. Enjoy! (I guess...)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Runoff that Wasn't

If you were paying any attention at all to the recently concluded United States Track and Field Olympic Trials, it seems impossible that you would not be aware of the controversy concerning the women's 100-meter event.  As a short recap of what happened, on June 23, 2012, the finals in the event were contested with Carmelita Jeter winning in 10.92, Tianna Madison finishing second in 10.96, and initially Jeneba Tarmoh being declared the third place in a tightly contested finish with Allyson Felix.  Both Tarmoh and Felix were given times of 11.07 seconds, but when the times were expanded to the thousandths of a second position, Tarmoh was given a time of 11.067 seconds to Felix's 11.068.  As stated, Tarmoh was initially declared the third place finisher, but upon further review, the race was declared a dead heat, which meant that somehow the tie would need to be broken since only a maximum of three runners can represent any single nation in the event at the Olympics.  Both Tarmoh and Felix were entered in the 200-meter event as well, and so the Bob Kersee, the man who coaches both athletes, asked that any tiebreaker wait until the conclusion of that second event.  Felix went on to win the 200-meter, with Tarmoh finishing outside the top three, and in the meantime, USA Track and Field decided that the tie would be broken either by a runoff or a coin toss.  In order for the coin toss to decide the issue, both athletes would have had to agree.  On Sunday evening, July 1, 2012, it was initially announced that a runoff would take place the following evening, but as early as later that evening, word started to spread that Tarmoh was considering pulling out of the event and surrendering the spot to Felix.  And then by late morning to the early afternoon of July 2, 2012, Tarmoh did officially pull out of the event and Felix is now set to represent the United States in the 100-meters as the third place finisher.

The paragraph above contains the basic details of what happened, but if you had been following the Trials, you know that there is more to the story.  I want to first address the complaints, or better yet whining as I see it, that have come from some who have paid attention to this story about how USA Track and Field has handled this situation.  One of these biggest whin...err, complainers is Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden, who in one of the articles he wrote about this story had this to say:
USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer informed media that the race was a dead heat, and that there were no procedures in place to settle it. More than 24 hours later, Geer again stood up in front of the same media and announced this procedure which, comically, includes coin toss protocols. It has been an embarrassment for the organization and the sport, and closure is scarcely nearer at this moment than on Saturday evening.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/tim_layden/06/26/track-field-photo-finish-felix-tarmoh/index.html#ixzz1zZpz5jCF
And then later, in an article that Layden wrote after the runoff was scrapped, Layden had this to say:
Yet even the hint of ongoing controversy further stains USATF, which has done little right since the finish of the race.
*The overrule: According to Jennings, in a 20-year career as a photo finish judge, he had been overruled just once, and that was in a cross-country race. Never had one of his judgments been questioned in a track race, where torso interpolation is common. Podkaminer's fear of appeal undercut the most qualified expert in the booth.
*The lack of procedure: Astoundingly, USATF had no tiebreaking procedure in place, an embarrassing circumstance that the organization's chief PR officer was forced to relate in a surreal press conference after the 100 on June 23, setting the tone for the week that followed.
*Lack of presence: Both USATF President Hightower and CEO Max Siegel, who was appointed in April, enacted a stunning display of non-leadership throughout the week of the dead heat controversy, failing to take control of the story, if not the actual situation. Instead, coach Kersee became the most visible figure, making late night calls to reporters, politicking for more rest for his athletes. (Kersee's most strident argument was that any runoff wait until after the 200.)
All of this seemed salvageable on Sunday, when the runoff was announced. There was palpable excitement in the track community and beyond. Tweets announced "Must-see TV!" and other similar exhortations. But in truth, the runoff began to unravel almost immediately after it was announced, its cancellation a mere formality by Monday morning. Instead of competition at Hayward Field, there was only construction, heavy work that represents the slow dismantling of a sport.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/tim_layden/07/02/jeneba-tarmoh-allyson-felix-100-meter-runoff/index.html#ixzz1zZtqSfTe
I have quite a number of problems with Layden's (and there is really no other way I can assess this) hyperventilating.  The first issue I will address is this supposed lack of a procedure in place to decide such matters.  Track and field (and the USATF) has long has tiebreaker rules in place and they are really quite simple. I'll explain them for this particular situation.  Since Tarmoh and Felix finished very close to one another, they first looked at the number of seconds each runner had taken to get down the track as the tiebreaker.  Oh wait, they both finished in roughly eleven (11) seconds as judged by the clock, well then let's go to the second tiebreaker, the tenths of a second.  Well, both runners appeared to cross the line about one tenth (0.1) of a second beyond the eleven seconds they had run.  Okay then, let's go to the next tiebreaker, hundredths of a second.  (And for the record, after two tiebreakers, both now stand at 11.1 seconds.)  Well, when we look at the hundredths of a second position, we find that we have to make an adjustment to the tenths of a second position because neither runner did actually run a full tenth of a second beyond eleven seconds, but it does appear that both runners ran seven hundredths of a second (0.07) beyond eleven seconds.  Okay then, we must go to the fourth tiebreaker, thousandths of a second.  (And so after three tiebreakers, both runners are still tied, now at 11.07 seconds.)  And so when they look at the thousandths of a second, the timer sees that neither in fact ran a full seven hundredths of a second beyond eleven seconds, but he is able to judge that Felix ran eight thousandths (0.008) of a second beyond 11.06 rather conclusively for a time of 11.068.  In the case of Tarmoh, the timer cannot tell with nearly the same level of certainty when this runner crosses the line, but interpolates a time of seven hundredths of a second (0.007) beyond 11.06, for a total time of 11.067 seconds.  From this point, it was eventually ruled that the two had run a dead-heat and were given the same time, which started this supposed "embarrassment" for the USATF.

Remaining on this supposed lack of procedure point, I will remind you that they already had exhausted four tiebreakers: the seconds, the tenths of a second, the hundredths of a second, and the thousandths of a second.  I'm not sure how useful it would have been to allow a human being to judge the time to the ten thousandths of a second since it is clear that judging the finish to the thousandths of a second can be guesswork, so let's throw that idea out as a possible tiebreaker.  Now given that we are not going to let humans judge to the thousandths of a second, what other tiebreakers could we possibly use?  I mean other than the two possibilities that USATF provided (runoff and coin toss).  The only sort of other somewhat reasonable choice I can imagine is looking at the two runners' reaction times and finding in favor of the runner with the slower reaction time since she had in fact run the distance faster.  (This would have incidentally given the victory to the Felix.)  But this option is problematic since the start is an important part of the race and I don't believe that an athlete should be penalized for legally reacting to the gun quickly.  So, I'm sitting here thinking and wondering what other procedures other than the ones that USATF provided and other than the positively absurd (like a tether-ball game) could have been used to break this tie that would have been fair to both athletes?  The truth is that there are not any.  Any reasonable person who isn't looking for a reason to criticize the USATF could have predicted once a dead-heat was declared that this tie would be broken by either a runoff or a coin toss (or one of the runners just surrendering the chance at the spot).

Surprisingly perhaps, I have a bigger problem with Layden's seeming complaint about another issue.  This is the overrule of the photo official's original timing call.  In the articles, Layden points out that the photo finish judge, Roger Jennings, has over twenty years of experience, that he has used this process of interpolation to get an athlete's finishing time before, that he had only been overruled one other time before in those twenty years, and that Jennings attests that he would have designated Tarmoh the winner in this situation 100 times out of 100.  The clear suggestion that Layden is making is that Jennings should not have been overruled in the first place.  But let's keep a few things in mind, Tarmoh's time was an interpolation, Jennings admits that the interpolations are always subjective, and at the pace the two runners were moving in the race, if they were separated by one thousandth of a second, they would only be separated by at most about nine millimeters.  And when you are looking at a photographic representation of the finish on a computer, which would generally show a smaller version of the outcome, this nine-millimeter distance would be further compressed.  If one were to blow up this photo to a larger size, you would lose resolution and thereby the ability to accurately assess boundaries in the photo.  It seems crazy to me that Layden is depending so heavily on the accuracy of one guy's interpolations and the fact that they had only been overruled one other time in twenty years.  An interpolation is a guess, pure and simple.  I don't care if Roger Jennings would have called the race for Tarmoh 100 times out of 100, if he was using faulty assumptions when making his guess, then he could have been wrong 100 times out of 100.  Let me give an example of this.  If I told you that there was a certain function that had points (x, y) located at (-2, 8), (-1, 5), (1, 5), and (2, 8), and asked you to interpolate a point at x = 0, what point would you select?  Well, there is a chance that you could select the point (0, 4) because then all five points would satisfy the equation y = x^2 + 4.  But then I would tell you that you were wrong because the point at x = 0 is actually (0, 7) because then the five points would satisfy the equation y = 0.75x^4 - 2.75x^2 + 7.  Again, every interpolation is a guess based on whatever assumptions the person who is doing the interpolation is using.  But it is completely possible for the person to use the wrong assumptions and therefore produce a wrong interpolation.  That there was no actual video evidence showing Tarmoh crossing the finish line ahead of Felix, given how close the race was, I see absolutely zero problems with overruling Jennings's guess, even though he maintains that he would have gone with his guess 100 times out of 100 (especially, I imagine, if he used the exact same procedure and assumptions 100 times out of 100).

And finally, as for the last point, I just chuckle.  I'm sure it would have been absolutely fantastic and worthwhile if the USATF President and/or CEO had 'taken charge of the situation.'  Because it would have changed so much if one or the other or both came out and said, "We still don't have a firm decision, but it's likely to be settled by either a runoff or a coin toss, you know, because we don't think it's appropriate to settle this with a tether-ball match."  The bottom line is that a resolution was achieved in the allotted time window that was necessary for the United States to finalize its track and field team for the Olympics.  If the USATF President and CEO were more focused on making sure the meet was running smoothly and were not overly focused on a single damned spot in a single damned event, then I would take that rather than having them have to come out and tell people what they should have logically known was going to happen in the first place.  Lastly (for real this time), it seems completely laughable that Layden seems to want to hold USATF at least partially responsible for Tarmoh deciding to pull out of the race.  Really?  This is somehow USATF's fault?
 

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