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Column: Rare 'dead heat' keeps track story alive

You could forgive the folks at USA Track and Field for not having a rule on the books.

After all, what happened to sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh at the U.S. Olympic trials last weekend was unprecedented. The two finished in a dead heat for third place — with the final U.S. spot in the 100-meter field at the London Olympics on the line — and no matter how much the photo was magnified, there was no way to choose between them. Pressured to come up with a tiebreaker fast, the USATF offered Felix and Tarmoh a choice between a) racing again; b) flipping a coin; and c) seeing if one or the other would bow out. Sensible choices, but hardly Solomon-like, or even the most entertaining.

So the next time the situation arises — and it will, given the improvement in finish-line technology — we recommend the USATF consider the following alternatives: Beer pong. Darts. A punt, pass and kick contest. A stare down. A hot dog-eating contest. One of those between-periods promotions at hockey games where you try to shoot a puck from the faceoff circle through a 6-inch cutout in front of the goal.

Any of those is better than options b and c. That might explain why neither Felix nor Tarmoh, who are friends, training partners and even share a coach, Bob Kersee, have said anything about their choices in public. They have until the trials end Sunday to decide, and normally their silence would be driving USATF officials up a wall. But like everyone else involved, the higher-ups are thrilled to find track and field at the center of sports discussions everywhere without the word "steroids" being mentioned even once. The controversy has bounced from ESPN to CNN to the "Today" show and filled up USATF President Stephanie Hightower's phone with text messages and voice mails from around the world.

"They are stay-at-home moms to retired folks to business leaders in my community," she said. Yet for all the differences among the respondents, Hightower said a consensus has emerged among fans on how they want the tie broken.

"'They've got to do a runoff, not the coin toss,'" she said, summarizing the sentiment of fans.

That would be the most dramatic resolution, not to mention the most satisfying. It may even be simpler to stage than the coin toss, at least as envisioned by the USATF.

In a lengthy statement setting out the rules, the federation apparently tried to make up for getting caught unawares by what happened on the track. It stipulated what coin should be used, "a United States Quarter Dollar coin with the image of George Washington appearing on the obverse hub of the coin and an Eagle appearing on the reverse hub" and even how it should be launched.

"Each athlete shall face each other and the USATF representative shall bend his or her index finger at a 90 degree angle to his or her thumb, allowing the coin to rest on his or her thumb. In one single action," the statement continued, "the USATF representative shall toss the coin into the air, allowing the coin to fall to the ground."

Fortunately, somebody at headquarters decided to spare the rest of us a description of how gravity works. Good thing, too, since there's no way two athletes who have spent most of a lifetime scuffling and sacrificing just for the opportunity to go to the Olympics would risk it all on a coin flip.

A runoff is more likely, though Kersee found that prospect so unnerving that he promised to warm them up, hand out final instructions, then "take a stroll" and get the news after the fact. Considering how finely tuned athletes like Felix and Tarmoh are, small wonder that Kersee can barely watch. But U.S. gold medalist Maurice Greene would tune in, and with a decent purse and the right kind of ticket promotion — something like "$10 for 11.086 seconds of fun" — so might more than a few others. What he envisions is an atmosphere like a heavyweight fight.

"Tell NBC to give them $2 million and have a runoff," Greene said. "Then they'll do it for sure."

Maybe.

Another possibility has been little discussed, but much could depend on how Felix and Tarmoh fare in the 200 meter qualifying that begins Thursday. If Felix locks up a place on the team in the 200, her signature event, she may simply bow out and effectively cede the final 100 meter spot to her protege. That, too, would be something very rare.

"One of the amazing things about sport," said Alan Ashley, the chief of sports performance for the U.S. team "is you've never seen it all."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.