A Runner’s Decision to Bow Out

July 11th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Was it great sportsmanship, a quitter’s decision, or just plain unfair?

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The Responsibility Project

It was scheduled to be an attention-grabbing runoff to grab a place in the 100-meter race in this month’s Olympics – until one of the contestants ended the dead heat before it had begun.

The controversy started when sprinter Jeneba Tarmoh and training partner Allyson Felix – both trained by coach Bob Kersee – crossed the line in 11.068 seconds during the June 23rd trials.

Never before had USA Track and Field seen a dead heat, nor did it have a protocol in place to settle the tie. It was an especially disappointing moment for Tarmoh, who finished the original race to look up on the scoreboard and see her name in the third spot behind winner Carmelita Jeter and runner-up Tianna Madison. According to an ESPN story, she took a celebratory lap and “soaked up the moment,” hardly believing she was on her way to the Olympics in the 100.

But it was all over when she learned officials took a second look at the results and declared a tie. Following that major disappointment for Tarmoh, who felt she’d earned her place, USATF scrambled to find a solution, including a runoff, a concession, and even a coin toss. And only hours after NPR, Oregon Live and other news outlets reported that a runoff was in the works, Tarmoh backed out of the race.

ESPN reported that many view Tarmoh’s choice not to race as a lost opportunity for the sport. And the decision seemed particularly unfair to some, since Felix had already qualified for the 200 meter in her greatest race ever, finishing the race in 21.69 seconds – the sixth-fastest mark of all time and the fastest women’s 200 since Marion Jones ran 21.62 in 1998.   

Tarmoh told ESPN that in her emotional state, completing the runoff would have been a mistake. “It was more than me winning, it was me practicing since November and training every day,” she said. “It was me cramping up in the middle of practice, me throwing up at practices. It was me getting mentally prepared, physically prepared, then going to the trials and making it through each round and staying focused.”
Particularly difficult, she said, was putting her all on the track, seeing her name on the scoreboard and then hearing, “’Sorry, we changed our mind. You didn’t get third. It’s a dead heat.’”

Tarmoh will still go to the Olympics as a member of the 400-meter relay pool, according to USATF officials. And while she may have made a disappointing decision for some fans, most would agree she showed spectacular sportsmanship, especially after sending an email to Felix to explain her decision. Felix wrote back and said, “’I hope it doesn’t change our relationship, I hope it makes it stronger,’” Tarmoh said. And she says she feels the same way. So now she’s back to training with Kersee and trying to put the ill-fated race behind her. 

Some columnists have taken issue with Tarmoh’s decision to “quit,” like Washington Post columnist Tracee Hamilton, who skewered competitors who bow out: “She is a competitor, and a competitor should compete. An Olympic spot is not to be taken lightly. The same day Tarmoh gave up, Dara Torres failed to make her sixth Olympic team – at age 45. She would swim through a shark-infested pool if it meant one more chance to make the team.”

Would you call the move by Tarmoh generous, a smart decision by someone who values emotional balance, or the mark of a quitter? And should Felix have made the same gesture, particularly after having qualified for the 200? Weigh in.