How Do They Know Those Sprinters Finished In A Dead Heat?

As we wait to hear whether sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh will flip a coin or race again to determine who gets the third and final slot in the 100 meters for Team USA at the London Olympics, we’ve been wondering:

Just how do officials determine exactly how fast world-class sprinters are and just who has finished first, second or third when they’re flashing past?

Well, forget about stopwatches. That’s so Chariots of Fire.

The short answer is that they use electronic timers (connected to the starting gun) and some of the fastest cameras around. USA Track & Field rules require that cameras positioned at finish lines must be capable of “producing a composite of at least 100 component images per second.” The cameras also record the time, as How Stuff Works explains.

At the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday, one camera was shooting the finish line at 3,000 frames per second. The other was clocking at 5,000 frames per second. And even at those speeds, it was concluded that Felix and Tarmoh both hit the line 11.068 seconds after the start.

That is, their torsos hit the line.

It’s the torso — defined in the rules as being “distinguished from the head, neck, arms, hands, legs or feet” — that matters. No winning by a nose.

Now, there still are humans involved in the officiating. LetsRun.com interviewed Roger Jennings, who initially “read” the results of Saturday’s race at the Olympic trials, and thought that Tarmoh might have come in third. If so, that would have put her on Team USA for the 100 meters, not Felix. Jennings said he based that unofficial ruling on “the arm position or Tarmoh,” which made it look as if the right side of her torso might have been ahead of Felix.

But, “I protested it [his preliminary decision] myself,” Jennings said. And after he and four referees examined the photos, “we all decided that we saw … was a dead heat.”

You can see Jennings talk about the dead heat in this video.

So what now? There was no procedure in place before the race for how to determine which competitor would be awarded third place in the event of a tie. Remember: Third place is important because Team USA will take three 100-meter competitors to the London Olympics. The fourth place finisher becomes an alternate. The plan that USA Track & Field officials came up with is that:

“1. If either athlete declines his or her position on the National Team/Olympic Team, that athlete will be named the alternate and the other athlete will assume the final available position.

“2. If neither athlete declines their position, they will be given the option to determine the tie-breaker via coin toss or by run-off.

“a. If both athletes choose the same option, that option will be utilized as the tie-breaker.

“b. If the athletes disagree on the tie-breaker, the tie will be broken by a run-off.

“c. If both athletes refuse to declare a preference regarding the method between a run off and coin toss in regards to how the tie is broken, the tie will be broken by coin toss.”

Felix and Tarmoh, as ESPN reports, have each said they won’t decide which option to choose until after they both run in the 200-meter sprint on Saturday.

Yes, that’s correct, they’re both vying to make the team as 200-meter competitors as well.

Among the possible outcomes: If only one qualifies for the Olympics in the 200, she cedes her position in the 100 to the other and there is no runoff or coin flip.

But what if there’s another too-close-to call? Anybody up for Dead Heat II?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.