What It Means When Instant Replay Tells Us There Is No Winner

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Even cameras rolling at 3,000 frames per second could not discern a winner in Saturday's 100-meter dash.

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USA Track & Field

In 1882, early photographer Eadweard Muybridge wrote to the magazine Nature with a prediction: "In the near future ... no race of any importance will be undertaken without the assistance of photography to determine the winner of what might otherwise be a so-called 'dead heat.' ''

He was right about the first part: Photography is routinely used for the determining a race's winner -- whether for human or horse. 

But photography has now also produced -- or, perhaps, merely recorded -- a scenario Muybridge thought was impossible: a dead heat. "It is unnecessary for me to inform you, that there can be no such thing as a 'dead heat'," he had asserted, a bit too confidently: Over the weekend sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh finished so closely -- both coming in at 11.068 seconds -- that no amount of high-speed photography (the cameras shoot 3,000 frames per second) can discern who placed third and who came in fourth. There are three spots on the US Olympic team for this event.

Like Muybridge, track officials had not expected such a outcome, and there were no procedures in place for handling it. Yesterday, USA Track & Field and the United States Olympic Committee announced their decision: If neither woman willingly gives up her slot, they will have the option of choosing between a tie-breaker race and a coin toss. If one wants a re-match and the other a coin toss, then a run-off. If they refuse to declare, then a coin toss it is. This procedure will apply to other dead heats going forward.

Now a coin toss will guarantee that thing Murbridge hoped technology would provide: a clear winner. But there can be no clear winner -- technology or not -- if the two contestants are truly equal. Data was supposed to provide definitive conclusions; instead what it has definitively shown is that reality does not always provide neat orderings that fit the systems and institutions we have designed. We have an answer -- these two women are equally fast, down to the millisecond -- but it was not the one we sought, and it will not work for us.

The drama of sports -- surely lost in a coin toss -- come from pitting two well-matched people against each other and seeing how they fare. But in this case the match has turned out to be *so close* it reminds us how slender the notion of a winner can be -- milliseconds, millimeters, tenths of a point awarded from a judge. So what if one had crossed the finish line a millisecond ahead of the other? Is that difference enough to define a spot on an Olympic team?

But though they may be tiny, such differences -- differences we cannot even perceive without technology -- are how we crown victors. They may seem like nothing, but who would want to watch a race between Usain Bolt and my next-door neighbor? No one. That closeness -- the arbitrary, trivial, elusive distinctions that mean a gold or a silver, a spot or no spot -- is why we watch.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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