Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An Olympics Qualifying "Rules Hole"

One of the distinctive features of sport is that action on the field is governed by a set of laws or rules that are expected to cover every contingency. This is certainly not the case for governance of sport off the field, where it seems that anything is possible.

The expectation of comprehensive is a key difference between on-field sport jurisprudence and the rest of society. So it is as notable as it is rare to encounter an on field situation that falls outside the rules. It is notable for jurisprudential reasons, but also for reasons of probability, as the vast on-filed experience afforded by competition typically tests rules in all their dimensions.

Earlier this week a "rules hole" was revealed in the procedures of USA Track & Field, the national governing body, which has responsibility for overseeing the track and field athletes who will represent the US in the upcoming Olympics.

In the finals of the 100m on Saturday Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh (pictured above) finished in a third place tie. With the top 3 advancing to the Olympics, a third place tie is problematic. It turned out that the USATF had no procedure for resolving a third place tie, and needed to come up with one quickly.

The resulting policy, designed and implemented in a hurry, can be seen here. As Oliver Wendell Homes said, hard cases make bad law, and this situation appears no different. The new policy has already been panned and the participants are already gaming the new rule in hope of some advantage. I'd expect that it will be revisited after the Olympics and after the spotlight of a single case has dimmed.

Other examples of "rules holes" and fillers:

Many, but not all, of the "rules holes" are actually the result of technological innovation. For instance, the NFL "tuck rule" and other rules that define fumbles and catches are the result of instant reply that allow the game to be seen with much more precision than was previously the case. Perhaps ironically, the dead heat in the 100m race this week may have been resolved in earlier years with less precise technology.

"Rule holes" show us that even in the most contrived situations unforeseen contingencies arise. How we deal with those contingencies -- in sport but also broader society -- is a hallmark of good policy making.


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