It was track’s version of Bush v Gore. Potential fame and fortune were on the line for the winner, if those in charge could only figure out who had won.
In this case, hanging chads were not the issue. Rather, it was a photograph — or thousands of them, taken within a second — that somehow failed to reveal who had finished in third place and earned a spot on the United States Olympic track and field team for this summer’s London Games.
It happened Saturday night at the United States Olympic trials, in the 100 meters - a glamour event that often produces the world's fastest woman. The setup was simple: eight runners started, and the rules stated that the top three would receive spots in London. But there was a tie for third place between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh, an extraordinary situation that the sport's officials had not considered.
Other sports have protocols for handling such outcomes, through tiebreakers or overtimes. United States track officials did not. For most of Sunday, the officials still seemed unsure of how to settle the matter. Suggestions abounded. Rock, paper, scissors? A hand of poker? Putting two names in a running shoe and having Carl Lewis pull one out?
Finally on Sunday evening, nearly 24 hours after the 11-second race ended, a ruling was issued: the athletes would be given a choice between breaking the tie with a coin toss or a runoff. If they agree on which option they prefer, that method will be used; if there is a disagreement, a runoff will be held.
In announcing the new policy, Jill Geer, a spokeswoman for USA Track and Field, said the procedures were developed by the organization's officials with input from Olympic athletes - though none who have any connection to the event in question.
Geer said the issue would be settled before the end of the trials next Sunday, although there is no explicit deadline for the athletes to declare their preference - meaning they can wait until after the women’s 200 meters, in which both are entered.