At its best, track and field is enriched by its simplicity—times are run, distances jumped or thrown, heights scaled, records set. But the sport can also be strangled by its complexity, its visceral purity obscured by statistical arcana and official rulings that are often confusing to the casual fan.
Both elements—beautiful simplicity, vexing complexity—were on display last weekend when the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials embarked on a 10-day run in the track temple of Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. They unfolded almost simultaneously late last Saturday afternoon, as first Ashton Eaton, 24, broke the world record in the decathlon and moments later Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh ran to a dead heat for third place in the women's 100 meters.
The former was a symphony of excellence, unfolding in a manner that was easily understood and embraced by the crowd of more than 21,000. Eaton, who attended and competed for Oregon, had been improving rapidly since taking up the decathlon as a Ducks freshman out of Bend, Ore., in 2007. Many insiders thought he would challenge the 2001 world record set by the Czech Republic's Roman Šebrle, but few thought it would happen in 2012. Then came two spectacular days in Eugene. As reigning Olympic champion Bryan Clay saw his London chances disappear with a DQ in the hurdles, Eaton was on a historic pace. After nine events he needed to run a personal best of 4:16.23 in the grueling 1,500 to break the record, a detail that was related to the Hayward crowd by decathlon announcer Frank Zarnowski.
The crowd watched the clock and exhorted Eaton. "Those last 600 meters, that's when the crowd was lifting me up," said Eaton. "I was not running on my own legs. It was incredible. I don't care what anyone says—this is a magical place." Eaton finished in 4:14.48 and broke the record by 13 points. He is the Olympic gold medal favorite.
Thirty minutes later Felix and Tarmoh threw themselves across the line in the 100, fighting for the third and final Olympic spot behind winner Carmelita Jeter and runner-up Tianna Madison. The stadium scoreboard briefly showed times of 11.067 seconds for Tarmoh and 11.068 for two-time Olympian Felix. Those marks were unofficial, but the crowd was not made aware of this fact and neither was Tarmoh, who ran a victory lap while Felix sobbed nearby.
Upon further analysis the race was declared a dead heat and 23 hours later USA Track and Field announced a procedure for breaking that tie (none had been in place before) that will require a run-off (or, possibly, a coin toss) at an undetermined time. And so the trials—and the sport—go forward in both glory and dissatisfying confusion.