2012 London Games: Jeneba Tarmoh needs some lessons about competition

Oscar Pistorius could teach Jeneba Tarmoh a few lessons about fighting, about fairness, about never, ever quitting. Maybe he’ll get a chance to provide an object lesson at the London Games.

But he shouldn’t have to. Neither Pistorius nor anyone else should have to teach an Olympic athlete the importance of competing. Tarmoh had a chance to compete for the final women’s spot in the 100 meters in a run-off with Allyson Felix, and she turned it down. She turned down a chance to run in the glam event of track and field.

No one doubts that Tarmoh was feeling bruised after what happened last week in Eugene. She thought she finished third, earning an automatic spot in the event. She celebrated on the track. It wasn’t until the news conference that she learned the finish might be in question.

Everyone has seen the shot of the photo finish. That’s almost unheard of — so much so that USA Track and Field had no plan in place to deal with such a finish. Officials scrambled and came up with this — runners could choose between a run-off or a coin flip. Felix and Tarmoh met Sunday night and decided on the run-off to be held Monday night and televised by NBC. But Tarmoh almost immediately began to waffle, and eventually backed out in an e-mail to Felix, ceding her third place and the 100 spot.

Tarmoh is still going to London. She’ll be in the pool for the 4x100 relay. That means she’ll run heats and try to qualify the United States for the final, when the faster runners will take over. If they win a medal, she wins a medal.

USATF made a breathtaking number of mistakes.

1. No procedure in place to break a photo finish tie? Really?

2. Officials took 24 hours to come up with a tiebreaking procedure — coin flip or run-off. It took a day to come up with that?

3. Their decision essentially forced the two athletes to choose between the two. No, no, no.

4. They patted themselves on the back for a job well done. “. . . I’m proud to say that based upon the work of a comprehensive group of people, we put a process in place that we think was first and foremost in the best interest of the athletes,” USATF President Stephanie Hightower said.

5. “The best interest of the athletes” turned out to make Tarmoh feel she was boxed in and forced to give in to a run-off. Then she just gave up.

(Frankly, the run-off makes you wonder if some NBC officials were in the room, putting in their 2 cents, and 2 billion, whatever. Because it would have been a ratings bonanza, or at least by track and field standards.)

So I feel for Tarmoh, but in the end, 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.

Pistorius has faced worse than sharks. He’s been fighting legal battles for years for a chance to compete in the Olympics. The double amputee known as the Blade Runner because of the shape of his prosthetics has always tried simply to compete against the best athletes in the world. South Africa was expected to name him to the 4x400 relay team, but Wednesday he made the 400 roster as well.

Pistorius began competing against able-bodied athletes in 2007 and the IAAF, track’s world governing body, immediately took notice — amending its rules to ban devices like Pistorius’s prosthetics while declaring the rule was not aimed at Pistorius. Riiiiiight. This was before the Beijing Olympics. Instead of quitting, Pistorius challenged the rule in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won. He failed to make the qualifying times for the Beijing Games and competed in the Paralympics instead.

This time around, he posted two times in the 400 that were under the qualifying standard but failed to post the third, missing it by less than a quarter of a second. The South African Olympic committee decided to send him anyway. Pistorius was going to be in London already, for the Paralympic Games that will follow the Olympics, so maybe officials were trying to save on airfare. Or maybe they looked at Pistorius and saw a man who just simply would not give up, who continued to compete despite obstacles that most of us cannot comprehend, and decided that he ought to be rewarded for that. Because long ago, before TV and drug testing and medal tables, the Olympics were about competing. Tarmoh should watch Pistorius in London; she could learn something.

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