You look at a photo like that one above, and without any other context, you probably assume the woman on the ground isn’t precisely where she wants to be. But Shaunae Miller’s lean/lunge/flop/dive got her across the finish line seven hundredths of a second ahead of Allyson Felix, and maybe, just maybe, hitting the deck was the reason the Bahamian took gold in the 400m.
Felix won her seventh career Olympic medal, making her the most decorated American female runner in history, but it was still a disappointment—she was seeking her fifth gold, which would have been a first for any woman in track and field. It’s been a rough go for the 30-year-old Felix, who tore ankle ligaments in April and wasn’t able to qualify for the 200m, but she’ll have one more chance, in the 4x400 relay this weekend.
But it’s Miller’s dive that we’re all talking about today, because let’s face it: most of us watch track once every four years, and we rarely, if ever see a finish like this. Here’s the full video of the race; let’s keep our fingers crossed that the tweet below survives.
I was brought up on baseball, where it’s axiomatic that you don’t dive into first base. Players still do it out of instinct, but in no situation will you make contact with the bag sooner by laying out for it than you would just running through it.
Track isn’t baseball, though. For one, Miller didn’t have to get to the ground, but merely to break a vertical plane. For another, merely stretching out a last stride wouldn’t have been enough: feet don’t count. Hands either. Let’s go to the rulebook!
Rule 164(2) of the IAAF Competion Rules clearly define when a runner has crossed the finish:
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[.]
This is the image of the photo finish used by officials to award the race to Miller. It’s her shoulder that counts, not her head or her arms. Felix’s position, too, is determined by her torso, not her foot, which is already across the line.
But did the dive actually help Miller? I honestly have no idea, but runners say it’s not uncommon.
“I did it myself twice this year,” said American Natasha Hastings, who finished fourth. “I dove [at the U.S. Olympic trials] for my spot here. And I did it in indoor nationals as well.
“You do what you’ve got to do to get over the line.”
On one level, it seems intuitive that a last-second lunge must gain some ground. But at the same time, it comes with an opportunity cost of losing out on one last stride propelling you forward. All runners lean through the finish line, but that doesn’t require them to leave their feet.
Michael Johnson seemed to think Miller’s dive was a mistake, or at least not what she planned.
My guess is that there’s no hard-and-fast rule on whether diving works, and that it comes down to the precise timing of each individual instance. I don’t know if diving helped Miller, but it sure didn’t hurt her.