20 Aug 2014
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SportsBeat: Is It Ever OK To Just Quit?

American sprinter Jeneba Tarmoh conceded a race for an Olympic spot rather that compete for it. Should she be considered a quitter?

SportsBeat: Is It Ever OK To Just Quit?

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Life is not fair, most of us know that by now. There have been promotions deserved but never offered, jobs won only to be lost for no good reason, and destiny derailed by a mistake or the incompetence of others. It happens, it's life, and painful experiences that we all have to deal with at one time or another.

In June of 2010, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers lost a perfect game and a chance for baseball immortality when umpire Jim Joyce blatantly blew a call on what should have been the final out of the game. While the rest of his teammates were going ballistic and railing about the injustice of it all, Galarraga, who should have been celebrating the greatest accomplishment of his life, handled the entire event with grace and class and did not complain once.

As the Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters."

Last Sunday night, I watched the U.S. Olympic trials for women's gymnastics. Nastia Liukin, who won a gold medal in the 2008 games, was competing for the chance to defend her title. On the uneven bars, Liukin fell flat on her face from about 12 feet in the air. Her dream of another gold medal ended with a resounding thud. She lay motionless on the ground amid the deafening silence of a stunned arena. Liukin was trying to regain the wind that had been blown out of her and overcome the shock of knowing that she had no shot of making the U.S. Olympic team.

Liukin was done and had no reason to go on. But she remembered what her coach and father had preached to her: "Finish what you started." Liukin got off the mat and completed her routine and received a rousing applause from the 15,000 people she had fallen in front of. She had gotten up, stared down adversity, and finished what she started. I will remember Liukin more for that act of courage than for her winning a gold medal four years ago.

On June 23, something bad happened to Jeneba Tarmoh. The American sprinter thought she had secured a third place finish and an Olympic berth in the 100-meter dash at the trials in Oregon. Her time said Tarmoh had placed third, she took a victory lap to celebrate her dream of making it to the Olympics, and was awarded a medal for her strong finish. Tarmoh even had a press conference afterwards to talk about her great accomplishment.

However, upon review of the race, U.S. Track officials said that Tarmoh and Allyson Felix, who are great friends and training partners, finished in a dead heat. Both finished in third place, but only one could go to London to compete in the 100-meter race. Track officials didn't have a plan set in place to break the tie so they said the runners could have either have a run-off, coin flip, or one runner could concede to the other. A coin flip? A concession? Are you serious? After all that training and hard work, do you think anybody would even consider giving up on their Olympic dream for that? Most athletes would choose the run-off and die trying to win the race. Not Jeneba Tarmoh.

On July 2, more than a week after the initial race, Tarmoh conceded the final Olympic spot in the 100 meters rather than meet Felix at the starting line to break a third-place tie. In explaining why she didn't want to compete in the run-off, Tarmoh admitted that she was physically and emotionally spent, "my heart just wasn't in it," Tarmoh said.

Roberto Duran pretty much said that same thing during his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. In the eighth round, Duran, who is regarded as one of the best fighters in the history of the sport, threw up his hands and said, "No Mas". He was finished. Done. Not interested in fighting it out for a championship. Those two words have come to identify all those who quit on something in sports. Duran was a spectacular and courageous fighter, but that one moment of weakness tagged him with a reputation that he's never been able to shake.

Tarmoh was graceful and full of class in her interview after raising the white flag for her race. She is a likable person who will still go to the Olympic Games as an alternate in the 100-meter race and as part of the relay pool. But she'll always be remembered as an athlete who passed up on what all athletes train to do: compete. A bad thing certainly happened to her when she "earned" a berth in the 100-meter race in the Olympic Games and then was asked to do a run-off for it again.

But that's life. It is not always fair. Our journey through this world is filled with potholes, speed bumps, and obstacles that seem impossible to overcome. It really is how you react to the adversity that truly matters. If you face it and try to stare it down, nobody can ever question your heart and spirit. 

Tarmoh conceded a race, she didn't want to test her limits and resolve against a decision that did not go her way. No system in life is perfect, not even for determining an Olympic finalist. Mistakes happen, just ask Armando Galarraga.

It might not be fair how Tarmoh is remembered, but that was her choice and she has to live with it.

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