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Recently during the USA Track and Field Olympic trials, there was a tie for third place between Allyson Felix and Jenebah Tarmoh. It appears that there was previously no tiebreaker rule in place for the Olympic trials, so they were given the option of either competing in a head to head race or having a coin flip to determine the winner.

(And who knows what would happen if they tied again)

What is the rule for tiebreaks during the actual Olympic races?

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The IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) is the highest governing body in the sport of athletics (which includes track and field). They cover the sport at an international level, which includes the International Olympic Committee.

SUMMARY

The rules for ties are as follows:

  • A tie remains if judges are unable to determine:

    • The order in which any part of an athlete's body reaches the finish line.
    • The order in which the athletes finished the race

      • as determined by the Chief Photo Finish Judge.
      • based on other timing mechanisms.
  • A tie among athletes in different heats for a ranking or qualifying position is handled by:

    • Considering the actual times recorded by the athletes who tied to 1/1000th of a second.
    • If a tie has been determined for a ranking position, the tie shall be broken by a draw.
    • If a tie has been determined for a qualifying position for a subsequent round, the athletes who tied shall be placed in the next round.

      • If all who tied cannot be placed in the subsequent round, lots shall be drawn to determine who shall be placed in the next round.

lots (n.): The use of objects in making a determination or choice at random.


SOURCE

According to their 2010-2011 competition rules (see page 140/255), ties are handled based on RULE 167:

167.1: If the Judges or the Photo Finish Judges are unable to separate the athletes for any place according to Rules 164.2, 165.15, 165.21 or 165.24 (as may be applicable), the tie shall remain.

164.2: The athletes shall be placed in the order in which any part of their bodies (i.e. torso, as distinguished from the head, neck, arms, legs, hands or feet) reaches the vertical plane of the nearer edge of the finish line as defined above.

165.15: A system which operates automatically at either the start or the finish, but not at both, shall be considered to produce neither Hand nor Fully Automatic Times and shall not therefore be used to obtain official times. In this case, the times read on the image will not, under any circumstances, be considered as official, but the image may be used as a valid support in order to determine placings and adjust time intervals between athletes. Note: If the timing mechanism is not started by the Starter’s gun, the time-scale on the image shall indicate this fact automatically.

165.21: In conjunction with the two Assistants, the Chief Photo Finish Judge shall determine the placing of the athletes and, as a consequence, their official times. He shall ensure that these results are correctly entered in or transferred to the competition results system and conveyed to the Competition Secretary.

165.24: The use of Transponder Timing Systems approved by IAAF in events held under Rules 230 (races not held completely in the stadium), 240 and 250 is permitted provided that:

  • (a) None of the equipment used at the start, along the course or at the finish line constitutes a significant obstacle or barrier to the progress of an athlete.
  • (b) The weight of the transponder and its housing carried on the athletes’ uniform, bib or shoe is not significant.
  • (c) The System is started by the Starter’s gun or synchronised with the start signal.
  • (d) The System requires no action by an athlete during the competition, at the finish or at any stage in the result processing.
  • (e) The resolution is 1/10th of a second (i.e. it can separate athletes finishing 1/10th of a second apart). For all races, the time shall be read to 1/10th of a second and recorded to the whole second. All read times not ending in zero shall be converted and recorded to the next longer whole second, e.g. for the Marathon, 2:09:44.3 shall be recorded as 2:09:45. Note: The official time shall be the time elapsed between the firing of the starting gun and the athlete reaching the finish line. However, the time elapsed between an athlete crossing the start line and the finish line can be made known to him, but will not be considered an official time.
  • (f) Whilst the determination of the finishing order and times may be considered official, Rules 164.2 and 165.2 may be applied where necessary. Note: It is recommended that judges and/or video recording(s) also be provided to assist in determining the finishing order.

167.2: In determining whether there has been a tie between athletes in different heats for a ranking position according to Rule 166.3(a) or for a qualifying position for a subsequent round based on time, the Chief Photo Finish Judge shall consider the actual times recorded by the athletes to 1/1000th of a second. If it is thus (or according to 167.1) determined that there has been a tie for a ranking position the tie shall be broken by draw. Where there is a tie for a qualifying position for a subsequent round based on time or place, the tying athletes shall be placed in the next round or, if that is not practicable, lots shall be drawn to determine who shall be placed in the next round.

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I can't belive it! you out run me by one second, I already had an answer waiting, +1! –  Dor Cohen Jun 25 '12 at 19:29
8  
@DorCohen In the event of a tie, who would get the answer? ;) –  edmastermind29 Jun 25 '12 at 19:32
    
I'm sorry, I'm really trying not to be lazy, but can you provide a brief summary of the two pages of copy-paste legal mumbo jumbo above? :) Thanks –  Marcus Swope Jun 26 '12 at 14:27
    
@MarcusSwope summary added –  edmastermind29 Jun 26 '12 at 15:17
    
@edmastermind29 thanks, my small brain was having a hard time with all those big words ;) –  Marcus Swope Jun 26 '12 at 17:49
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