The only experience more frustrating than a photo finish in a 100-meter dash is the ensuing crisis about what happens next.
USA Track and Field, the sport’s domestic governor, apparently never envisioned the possibility of a literal dead heat in last weekend’s women’s premier sprint in Eugene, OR. The top three finishers at the U.S. Trials go to the Olympics in London.
Judges initially gave Jeneba Tarmoh, left, third place by .00001 seconds over Olympic veteran Allyson Felix. But then a photo, the judges said, showed the two hitting the tape at the same time and declared a tie.
In keeping with the perception-deaf ways of sports governance, the track organization — after meeting in secret — said the two runners could flip a coin or run another race to determine the third-place finisher. That certainly cleared things up fast.
As Jere Longman wrote in the New York Times: No one should be surprised that USA Track and Field botched this race and embarrassed both sprinters. As has often been said since Saturday, the only amateurs left in Olympic sports are the officials running them.
We’ve often cited secrecy, lack of credibility, absence of candor and inability to articulate a firm position as factors in a crisis. What are these track officials thinking?
There’s not much they could do at the finish about lack of advanced consideration of the situation. There are rules for dead heats in just about every sport where a tie is possible: soccer, football, baseball, horse racing, basketball, baseball, and on and on. One would think officials setting rules for a track race would at least consider the possibility.
Fans and the public might be willing to forgive that omission if the organization moved fast and openly. But to compound the stupidity and elevate a mistake into a catastrophic crisis is unforgivable.
Intelligent people in responsible positions should be more adept at defining how the public perceives them and act transparently to reach a rapid, smart consensus. Otherwise, you become a laughingstock watching your reputation sprint away from you as fast as these two runners did.
Everyone involved deserved better. Sports officials, check your rule books. Crises happen all the time.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.