EUGENE, Ore. — It will be remembered as the most anticipated race never run. The runoff that turned into a walk away to conclude the U.S. track trials.
Jeneba Tarmoh conceded the final Olympic spot in the 100 meters rather than meet training partner Allyson Felix at the starting line to break a third-place tie. She notified USA Track and Field early in the day of her intention to withdraw from the Monday night race, later saying it was simply because her heart wasn’t into the runoff.
In the original race on June 23, Tarmoh leaned across the finish line and looked up to see her name on the scoreboard in the third spot behind winner Carmelita Jeter and runner-up Tianna Madison. The 22-year-old Tarmoh then took a celebratory lap around the track, waving an American flag. She received a medal and held a news conference.
And then watched the moment evaporate as the race was ruled a dead heat. She was reluctant to take the line for a runoff from the start, especially since she believed she earned the final spot in the 100 fair and square.
“Running in this (runoff) came down to how I felt internally. Would my heart be at peace running or would I not be at peace? If I was at peace, I would have run,” Tarmoh told The Associated Press on Monday night. “My heart was not at peace with running.”
In an email sent through her agent to USATF, Tarmoh officially conceded: “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 unique race was scheduled to be shown in prime time on NBC in conjunction with the network’s coverage of the swimming trials. It would’ve been a boon for track. Now, it’s another blow for a sport that’s taken its fair share of late.
“This could’ve been something exciting for the sport, something new, something different,” said Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, whose husband, Bobby, coaches both sprinters. “It would bring people in that don’t ordinarily watch. Reality at its best. This is reality. You’ve got everything — emotion, drama.
“But you don’t have a cast.” And without a cast, track’s moment in the spotlight fizzled.
“It is very frustrating for me, for someone who would like more people watching sport our sport on a regular basis,” NBC sprints analyst Ato Boldon said. “That anytime you hear a track and field story, it’s going to have a clumsy, awkward, or cringe-worthy ending.”
USATF President Stephanie Hightower said the organization was “disappointed” that Tarmoh had a change of heart.
The controversy in the 100 overshadowed the entire trials because USATF had no protocol in place to deal with a dead heat. And after top officials scrambled to draft a tiebreaking procedure on the fly, the athletes didn’t want to talk about it until after the conclusion of the 200 — nearly a week later.
The tiebreak also didn’t exactly address this particular situation — an athlete commits to racing and decides not to at the last minute. The matter, however, was resolved once Tarmoh stepped aside.
“I feel very good about my decision. Most people don’t understand why. But I’m not here to explain anything,” Tarmoh said. “I’m saying I’m at peace.”
Both athletes are represented by Nike, but Tarmoh insisted the shoe company didn’t play a role in the decision.
“Nobody got any kind of money,” Tarmoh said. “Nike didn’t even know, in fact.”
Tarmoh said she would not pursue any legal action to get her spot.
“No legal action at all,” she said.
Tarmoh also said this hasn’t affected her relationship with Felix, who’s taken the young sprinter under her wing.
“I’ve told Allyson numerous times, `I have the utmost respect for you. I don’t want you to think I’m mad at you or anything negative,”’ Tarmoh said. “She’s an inspiration to me, helping me on and off the track.”
There was no guarantee Felix would’ve run in the race, either. She said Sunday that she would allow her health to make the final decision. If she warmed up and didn’t feel right, that’s it, Felix was going to pull out of the competition. She wasn’t about to risk anything this close to London.
One of the faces of track, Felix will now race in both the 100 and 200 in London. She is the favorite to win her signature event, the 200, after winning silver medals in the last two Olympics.
Although Tarmoh didn’t qualify in the 200, she’s eligible to run in the Olympic 400-meter relay.
“The situation has been difficult for everyone involved,” Felix said in a statement. “I had accepted the USATF decision and was prepared to run at 5 p.m. I wanted to earn my spot on this team and not have it conceded to me so I share in everyone’s disappointment that this runoff will not happen. All I can do now is turn my focus to London.”
This has been a debacle since Felix and Tarmoh crossed the line in 11.068 seconds. The options USATF presented to settle the tie were a runoff, coin flip or one athlete conceding the spot to the other.
The athletes and their agents met with USATF representatives Sunday, and Felix and Tarmoh chose to settle matters on the track. Tarmoh, however, was clearly unhappy with the choice.
On Sunday, she said felt “like I was kind of robbed.”
A day later, she’s at peace even if millions of fans were looking forward to the race.
“I didn’t even think about that,” Tarmoh said. “Honestly, when they said runoff, all I thought about was me and Allyson.
“It’s not because she’s my training partner. After I ran the 100 and saw my name as third place on the scoreboard, took my victory lap, got a medal, went to the press conference and then they tell me that you don’t have third place anymore? It kind of broke my heart a little bit.”