The United States’ Allyson Felix was the first sprinter to run through the finish line in the women’s 400-meter final on Monday night. But the 30-year-old American wasn’t the first to cross it.* Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas took gold after she fell—or maybe dove—across the line as Felix stayed on her feet.
If the bylaws of track and field stipulated that the winner has to get her whole body across the finish first, then Felix would have a gold medal around her neck right now. In track, though, it’s all about the torso. The International Association of Athletics Federation competition rules for 2016–17 state that “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.”*
To the naked eye, it looked like Felix might have won the race—that’s how they called it in real time on ESPN International. But trackside photos show that Miller’s face plant sent the front of her torso across that vertical plane just before Felix scooted across the line upright.
According to the Olympic News Service, Miller said after the race, “What was in my mind was, I had to get a gold medal. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground.”
Still, legendary 400-meter runner Michael Johnson said he didn’t believe her finish-line flop was intentional.
Does diving through the finish line work? U.S. Olympian Lolo Jones says maybe.
Watching the replay, it’s very, very hard to tell if Miller would’ve won if she stayed on her feet.
A Runner’s World story from 2012 says that in general, it’s a bad idea for sprinters to belly flop:
According to Ralph Reiff, the executive director of St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, Ind., the best way to finish a race is by running—not flying—through the line.
“Speed, from a mechanical standpoint, is how much force you can put into the ground from your torso to your glutes to your upper leg, all the way to your big toe,” says Reiff. “If you put your force into the ground and follow that up by flying through the air and don’t drop your other foot, you start to decelerate.”
That 2012 Runner’s World piece was written after American hurdler Jeff Porter dove across the line at the U.S. Olympic Trials to finish third in the 110-meter hurdles and win a spot on the Olympic team. For his part, Porter said he’d planned his dive in advance.
Four years prior to that, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, American David Neville flung his body across the finish line to edge out the Bahamas’ Christopher Brown to win the bronze medal in the 400 meters. For Bahamians, then, Miller’s win was sweet revenge.
Despite getting nipped at the tape, Felix won her seventh career Olympic medal, passing Jackie Joyner-Kersee to become the most-decorated American track and field star.
*Correction, Aug. 16, 2016: This post originally misstated Allyson Felix’s age. She’s 30, not 29. It also misidentified the International Association of Athletics Federation as the International Association of Athletic Federation.