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Budapest: It sounds wrong. Can’t separate a winner? You’re both winners.
Sport needs winners. Unless you are playing Test cricket, in which case, a) draws are OK, and b) England don’t lose because even when the scorebook says they lost they really won because, you know, the spirit of cricket.
Women’s pole vault world champions Nina Kennedy of Australia, and the USA’s Katie Moon.Credit: Reuters
But sport got a winner at the world athletics championship in Budapest; it just got two of them.
Australia’s Nina Kennedy and American Katie Moon were deadlocked in the pole vault, unable to be split on count back.
So, they were given the choice of having a jump-off – jumping again at the same height and then lowering the bar until one of them stuffed up, and you find a winner – or splitting the gold.
What do you reckon they did? You’d win the gold medal for idealist, or moron, if you chose the jump-off.
What athlete would ever choose the jump-off and risk the certainty of a gold medal, albeit a shared one, rather than ending it all and taking the gold?
Kennedy was competing against one of the greats of her sport: the reigning world and Olympic champion. She had competed for 2½ hours in temperatures over 35 degrees and in high humidity. It was a black flag day under the wet bulb guidance. I’m not entirely sure what a black flag means, but it sounds like a sign for piña coladas in hammocks not pole vaults in active wear.
Her body was cramping. Of course she was ready to walk on the comp. Moon was the better-credentialled athlete, but she had seen the punky Kennedy clear two personal bests, and two national records, and was on the crest of a wave.
Yes, sport is about fatigue and the fitter, stronger athlete prevailing. Not all fatigue sports required you to flip upside down five metres in the air on a pole. There’s some genuine level of danger that is a factor here.
Not all sport is the same either. Some can resolve deadlocks better than others. The Matildas’ win in their Women’s World Cup penalty shootout against France in their quarter-final was the best 17 minutes of sport seen in Australia in years. But it was an imperfect solution, too, to a deadlocked game.
Athletics as a sport is different to team sports or balls sports. It seeks to find who can run fastest, jump highest or longest, throw furthest. Track speed events can be decided by thousandths of a second. Jumping events can’t.
The pole vault, like the high jump where Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italian Gianmarco Tamberi agreed to split the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 when they could not be separated on performance, seeks to find who can jump the highest.
You do not achieve that with a jump-off. You have not found the highest jumper by finding the athlete who jumped only as high as others but then did not miss again at lower heights.
Telling Kennedy and Moon to go and clear 4.90m again if they could not clear 4.95m does not find the highest jumper. It might find the jumper who can more often jump the lower height, but that is not what you were looking for.
Perhaps that is good enough. But if World Athletics thinks that is a good enough way to resolve a deadlock, then make that the solution. Do not throw it over to the athletes to decide, because you know what they will choose: few athletes are ever going to say, no, I want the gold outright.
World Athletics has to decide and not leave it open to athletes to choose because they will take the medal. If World Athletics knows they will always take the medal, then scrap jumps-offs as an option.
World Athletics found who the highest pole vaulter in the world is. It’s Nina Kennedy and Katie Moon.
The only jump-off that would have changed that was one that said you get another go at 4.95m. And then you both get three more goes at 4.91m, or whatever height you fancy as long as it is greater than the height both of them have already cleared but less than the height they have repeatedly missed.
If that does not resolve it, then it’s a draw and split medals.
But World Athletics needs to make that decision. The athletes have been trained to “go for gold”; tell them they have got there, not that they are going to keep going.
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