What happened at the Niles West sectional?

If we are going to use a torso finish in Illinois, then we need to record the torso finish results

The starting line for the 2011 Niles West 3A IHSA Sectional. Photo credit Ilona vs http://www.CPSFan.com blog

Saturday, October 29, the day of the IHSA sectional cross country championships around the state of Illinois, was not a good day for chip timing.   The problems that day at the 3A Schaumburg Busse Woods sectional and the 3A Niles West sectional should make us all think carefully about the way we have handed important finish line matters over to a technology system and its masters without adequate involvement of coaches and officials–and without careful enough attention to the rule book.

There have been rule book adjustments made to accommodate chip timing.  But the systems we are using for chip timing—specifically the open finish line area without a chute–have not been designed to fit our rule book.

Yes, handing the job over to technology is convenient, and it solves some old problems like backed up finish chutes.  It speeds up the process of compiling results so that we all get home sooner.  Yes, when we can pay a timing company money to do the work for us, it relieves us of lots of finish line work as meet hosts and officials—and even as coaches who might have to help with the meet.

But if we are going to use a torso finish in Illinois, we cannot depend on the shoe chips to give us results.  We have to look carefully at the spirit of the rule book which requires finish judges and an adequate back-up system and a duplicate check system for the accuracy of the results.  We have to have a system that records the torso finish order if the torso is what determines the finish order.  To put it simply, we still need a finish chute where we record the finish order of the runners.

At the Schaumburg 3A sectional held at Busse Woods some kind of chip malfunction for the first 50 or so runners caused an error in the results that required them to do a video review of the finishers and re-score the meet.  That all seemed to go smoothly enough, however, and the mistakes were corrected and the results were finally judged to be accurate and complete.

Troubling questions remain, however, about what happened at the Niles West 3A sectional.  After the boys race, results based on the chip timing were posted quickly–too quickly, it turned out.  Those results showed Maine South and Lane Tech in a tie for fifth place, each with 173 points, and, according to IHSA rules, both teams would go to the state meet without breaking the tie.

But even as coaches, runners, and fans looked over those posted results, word began to circulate that the IHSA officials for the meet would be making a correction to the chip timed scoring.

Please understand that this blog post is not intended to criticize the IHSA officials, even if it raises questions about things the officials at Niles West did or did not do.  In fact, what I want to argue here is that there is a problem with the hybrid procedures we are using, a torso finish but with a chip timing system for the results.  It puts officials in an almost impossible position where they alone are responsible not just for finish line calls that they might make, but for remembering and recording any number of close finish calls–an impractical and unfair thing to ask them to do.

The official race video, which was posted publicly on Youtube for a few days after the meet but has been made private now, tells the story behind the corrected results.  It shows Neal Omar from Niles West stumbling and falling directly in front of the finish line.  While IHSA finish line official Ron Campbell watches carefully, Omar drags and flops himself to the finish, pushing his shoulders across the line while he lies on his back.  As Campbell watches Omar finish, Zack Eckhart of Maine South and Chris Kelly of Loyola cross the line before Omar can get his feet across the chip timing mats.  So the first posted results based on the chip timing put Eckhart at 21st, Kelly at 22nd, and Omar at 23rd.  These were the results that were posted with Maine South in a tie for fifth place.

But after these results were posted, the officials corrected the results to put Omar 21st—and Eckhart 22nd.  Maine South’s adjusted score of 174 points put them in sixth place—and one point out of the fifth place state meet qualifying spot.  Campbell’s judgment call at the finish line said Omar’s shoulders had crossed the line before Eckhart finished.  He had watched and judged that finish carefully, and as finish judge he made his legitimate correction to the chip results.

The news was devastating for the Maine South team, who had been celebrating after the first results were posted.

Our Ignatius boys have some close relationships and friendships on the Maine South team.  But we were dealing with our own disappointment that day, and our boys seemed to shy away from their Maine South friends after the meet.  There was nothing to say, it would seem.  We both hunkered down in our disappointed camps.

I don’t know the Maine South coach Greg Nordahl at all.  I was not involved in the administration of the meet, and I was not on the games committee.  As it happens, the second IHSA meet official that day was Bill Drennan, long time track and cross country coach at Maine South.  He must have had terribly conflicted feelings.  Perhaps everyone felt so badly for the Maine South team that no one stepped back to think about what happened that day—and what should be done.  And in fact, as I have suggested, the procedures and guidelines in place for what should be done were flawed.

Nordahl was allowed to review the video of the finish by the Niles West staff in charge of the meet, and it was his understanding that the IHSA officials had reviewed the video, as well.  Looking at the video, Nordahl felt the video evidence about when Omar had finished by getting his shoulders across the line was inconclusive.  The camera had been stationed behind the finish line to view the numbers of the runners as they crossed the line.  There was no camera stationed along the finish line to judge when a runner actually crossed the plane of the finish line.   Nordahl, based on the video, also judged that Eckhart had in fact crossed the line before Campbell made his call that Omar had finished.  In the video, it is not clear exactly when Campbell makes his call.  It is clearly well after Eckhart finished, however, that Campbell does in fact yell to Omar the words, “Now move off.”  Nordahl felt that he could argue that this seems to be Campbell’s call of the finish.

After viewing the video Nordahl felt he had grounds to lodge a protest.  He told the head of the games committee that he would protest the decision to change the chip timing order of finish.  He asked the Maine South athletic director, Steve Adams, to call the IHSA.

But no one apparently told Nordahl that there is a process for filing a protest, and he did not know the process.  The rule book says it must be filed in writing, and it must be submitted 30 minutes after the results of the meet are final.  Moreover, the games committee cannot rule on a judgment decision by an official.  It can only hear a protest based on a misapplication of the rules.  If Campbell made a finish line judgment, that call is not one that can be appealed.

I have been involved in one such high stakes protest.  This is a story set before the uniform rule was liberalized—and in fact it was a case that helped change the way we apply and interpret the uniform rule today.  In May of 2002 at the girls single-A Lisle track sectional held at the old junior high track, the University High girls 4×800 relay team finished second to qualify for the state track meet on the track, but then they were disqualified after the event for a uniform violation.  Three members of the team had a thin line of piping on the side of their black shorts; one member of the team wore black shorts from the same manufacturer but without the piping.  Noticing the difference while the girls were running, after the race an official lined them up for inspection and ruled that the uniforms of the four girls were not identical and so they were disqualified.  The University High head coach Peggy Doyle, who happens to be my wife, was in tears when she found me to tell me the news; her girls were in tears, too.

It was a miserable day—40 degrees, a driving rain.  The girls had courageously splashed around the track, running in a lane one puddle that stretched the length of the home straight away.  As the meet continued in the downpour, we began the process of arguing with the meet officials and talking with Ken Jakalski, the head of the games committee as the meet director.  With our rule books out, we first argued that the decision did not square with the apparent purpose of the rule, which was that members of a relay team should be clearly identifiable. I remember talking on the phone directly with Jim Flynn, then the assistant director in charge of track and field at the IHSA office; I think someone had quietly slipped us a direct phone number, trying to be helpful.  Flynn did not seem to think we had much of an argument.

As luck would have it, the weather and the flooded track became so bad that Jakalski and the games committee had to suspend the meet.  We went home to the University High athletic offices and continued reading carefully in our rule book in less stressful conditions—and we also looked through the case book.  In the case book we discovered examples of situations in which uniforms were ruled legal when they were not identical.  Teams were allowed to put chevron stars on uniforms to designate captains or special achievements, for example.  If one athlete could have three stars on a uniform and another might have none, that would not be identical.  But these uniforms, the casebook said, were legal in a relay.   This seemed to fit our situation pretty well.  We prepared our case brief.  The officials had misapplied the uniform rule because it does not require identical uniforms, but identifiable uniforms, our four-page document explained.  We emailed it to Jakalski and Flynn late in the day on Saturday.  We were informed on Monday morning by Jakalski that we would have a meeting with the games committee before the suspended meet began again Monday afternoon.  At that meeting Jakalski took photographs of the girls modeling their virtually identical uniforms, which he later submitted to the IHSA.  The games committee overturned the official’s disqualification based on a misapplication of the uniform rule.  Those photos were part of the IHSA rules presentation the next year which announced a change in how IHSA officials should apply and interpret the uniform rule.

We had been lucky that day to have time and quiet to do our rule book research because of the strange occurrence that the meet had been suspended, so the meet results were not final until the meet ended on Monday evening.   We also got significant help from Jakalski.  Perhaps Jakalski—and even the IHSA—had been waiting for just this kind of situation in order to address the problems with the uniform rule and the officials who were interpreting it too strictly.

I don’t think Greg Nordahl got that same kind of help.  He did not know that he had to file his written protest to the games committee right on site that day—and he had to do it very shortly after the meet results were finalized.  And apparently no one told him that he had to do so.

In fact, the corrected results were never actually posted on the wall.  But the scores were announced and the state finals parking passes and information had been distributed to the qualifying teams and individuals by 1:30, the time we left the Niles West facility in our school van.  The Maine South boys were still sitting quietly along the wall at that point.  The first race of the 2A Nazareth sectional was about to get underway.  I have not confirmed this, but it seems likely that Campbell and Drennan were working as the officials for this sectional, as well.  Most of the people attached to the 3A sectional cleared out.   It was a tough situation, it would seem, and everyone wanted it to be over.

Nordahl and Maine South were told by the IHSA that they did not have a valid protest.  They could not protest the judgment call of an official; they did not have a clear misapplication of the rules.  They had not filed a written protest with the games committee.  According to the IHSA, they had no protest, in other words.

But over the next couple days a segment of what is apparently the official finish line video found its way to Youtube.  A link to the video appeared on the Tracktalk.net forum.  Posters sympathetic to the Maine South team saw what Nordahl saw.  But they also saw something else.  There was a second disputable finish at the 29th and 30th positions.

Lucas Beltran of Lane Tech, in green, trails Jon Vaccaro of Maine South, in black, as they approach the finish. Beltran, who passed five runners in the last 100 meters of the race, would catch Vaccaro at the the line. Photo credit Ilona vs http://www.CPSFan.com blog

Lucas Beltran of Lane Tech had made a courageous finishing surge at the end of the race, passing as many as five runners in the last 100 meters and arguably winning the fifth place qualifying spot for his team with that tremendous effort.  Photos of a portion of that remarkable finish were featured on another web site blog, CPSFan.com.  There was no photo of Beltran passing the last runner right at the finish line, Jon Vaccaro of Maine South.  But, in fact, this was the close finish line decision which determined the outcome of the meet for these two teams on the bubble.

The Youtube video suggested that the torso finish between Vaccaro and Beltran was much closer than the one-tenth of a second margin recorded by the timing system which placed Beltran ahead of Vaccaro using the chips on their feet.   It is also significant for what it does not record.  There is no clear indication of a finish line call on the video from the IHSA official Ron Campbell.

With Omar still collapsed in the middle of the finish area on the chip timing mats, the video shows Vaccaro slow down right before the finish line.  Perhaps he was preparing to avoid Omar.  Perhaps he thought the digital time clock in front of the finish line was the finish.  Perhaps it was just a young runner’s mistake to pull up before the line—something that happens all the time.  But as Vaccaro slows, Beltran charges, calculating a course to the finish, then correcting it, and then darting past Vaccaro and around Omar.  By the time they are crossing the timing mats, Beltran’s front foot has a one step lead over Vaccaro’s—that one tenth of a second margin recorded by the time chips.

The video does not look across the finish line, remember, to catch which runner’s torso crossed the line first.  Vaccaro’s last step to the ground before the line is about a foot out from the finish line, which is marked by cones at each end; Beltran, at the same moment, has a foot on the ground about a yard back.  Vaccaro is upright; Beltran has a bit of a lean.  Frame by frame, the video from the angle it has been shot is finally inconclusive about which runner finishes in 29th place with his torso crossing the line.

Viewers of the video from Maine South, of course, give the nod to Vaccaro.  Doing so would have shifted the score in Maine South’s favor—and kept Lane Tech out of the state meet.

Calling the finish between Beltran and Vaccaro a tie, however, would have sent both teams to Peoria.  If the video is inconclusive, why not call it a tie?

Perhaps the decision sits, as it did in the Omar finish, in the hands of the IHSA official Ron Campbell.  I have emailed the IHSA to ask the simple question:  What was Campbell’s call at the line as Vaccaro and Beltran finished?  Did he make a call?  I have not received any response.

Another big question:  Did the IHSA officials ever review the video of the finish line?

Whatever call Campbell did make at the finish line, the logistics of the chip-timed finish area would have depended upon his memory of doing so.  There does not appear to be any recorded evidence–on paper or on video–of what Campbell decided at that finish.

He clearly remembered to correct the Omar finish. But how many “I need to correct or check this on the results” finishes do we expect an official to remember?  How many “Lane Tech first, Maine South next,” or “green, then black” finishes can an official remember while watching 150 runners cross the finish line?

Perhaps we are asking the IHSA officials who work as finish judges in a chip-timed race to look at the feet and look at the torso simultaneously in order to make a judgment that the chip timed results will likely match the torso results.  Maybe this is what Campbell did as Vaccaro and Beltran finished, and he judged Beltran as the 29th finisher and evaluated the chip timing system would place him that way.  But is this something that is really humanly possible, even by the most experienced official who has worked on such a finish line before?

At Niles West there appears to have been no clear procedure, other than reliance on the memory of the official, for checking any judgment based upon the torso finish against the chip-timed results.  This is an unfair and untenable situation in which to place an official.

Here is where, I think, we could begin a case for Maine South based upon a misapplication of the rule book.

The first issue is whether there should have been a video review of the Niles West finish—for Omar, or for the Vaccaro-Beltran finish, or for all the finishes.  On Tracktalk.net, a poster named konza847 presented the different rules for video review as they have been written for the sectional meet and the state meet.  For the state meet, the video review of the finish is an important part of determining the final results:

At the state final meet, computer
scoring will be used. The (RFID) computer tags
will be attached one onto each shoe by using
twist ties. Essentially the chip is used as a
timing device
and the torso will be used for
scoring (NFHS 9-3-2). Video review will be
used to assist in scoring the meet. It is important
to note that Illinois interprets this differently
than the NFHS has (in rule 9-3-3).

The video review guidelines for the regional and sectional meets are different:

G. Video Replay and Television
Monitoring Equipment: Use of video replay or
television monitoring equipment other than the
official equipment approved by the IHSA (meet
manager) shall not be used to make decisions
related to the meet. Only IHSA state meet officials,
including the games committee (when
called upon by the meet referee to do so), will
have the authority to review official video
results. It is also required for the host to have
available “official video review” at the regional
and sectional level. Video review is not to be
used as a primary method of determining the
outcome of the race at the regional and sectional
level of competition.
Regional and
Sectional Managers must provide some means
of video review to use when the meet referee
feels it is appropriate to review the results.
Elaborate, multi-camera systems are not necessary.
A single, well positioned camera should
be satisfactory.

I don’t know the reasons for applying a different rule to the use of video review at the regional and sectional levels as opposed to the state meet.  But it is my guess is that the specific wording about the video review of the torso finish at the state meet is based upon the anticipated use of a chip timing system; it specifically mentions a timing system that puts chips on both shoes and makes the point that scoring should be based on the torso finish, not the chip finish.  Indeed various requirements at the state meet—wearing the number so high that it covers the team names on jerseys, for example—seem to have been implemented just to help with the video review of the torso finish.

There seems to be no such anticipation of chip timing at the regional or sectional levels.

But at Niles West, the finish line was set up in the same way that the finish area is set up at the state meet—two chips on the shoes, an open finish area where runners simply cross the mats and then move out of the finish area, with no other recording of the finish other than the chip scoring.  Why shouldn’t the same video policy be in effect at a sectional meet set up this way?

The NFHS rule book description of finish line procedures and personnel under Rule 9, section 4, does not seem to have been written to cover this kind of chip timed finish recording system.  The rule book allows chip timing to determine the order of finish, not the torso, when chips are worn on both feet (Rule 9, Section 3, Article 3).  But in Illinois, we have over-ruled this NFHS rule and insisted upon a torso finish.  A finish line for a torso finish, it would seem to me, would therefore be required to follow the rule book guidelines for finish line procedures.

The NFHS rules outline a finish chute with an array of workers—chute director, finish judges, chute umpires, caller, checkers, and timers.  At the finish, it says, there should be multiple checkers noting the order of the runners.  Results are finally accepted when at least two checkers compare their recorded orders of finish and reach agreement, and if there is no agreement, the meet referee makes a final decision about which recorded order is more accurate.  It seems clear that the principle involved is that there should be multiple attempts to capture the order of the finish based upon the decision of finish judges (as in more than one judge), in part so that the meet officials can compare and check on the accuracy of the finish results.

At Niles West there was no finish chute that puts the runners in order after a finish judge makes a call at the finish line.  What’s more, other than the chip timing system, there was no recording of the finish order of the runners.  But there was, of course, the video tape of the finish.  The video, in other words, would be the check system—a second recorded finish order as seemingly mandated by the rule book.  And so in the absence of any other check system, it should have been required that the meet officials check the video—just as it seems to be required at the state meet.

In fact, as noted by another Tracktalk.net poster, Mainesouthxcdad, the video was consulted at the Schaumberg 3A girls sectional for at least one close finish—and a similarly important one:  “Surprisingly, there was an analogous situation on Saturday at the Schaumburg sectional in the girls race where Hoffman Estate’s No. 3 runner was determined by the timing system to have finished behind a girl from Stevenson, but the IHSA overruled the timing system and declared a tie, thus moving Hoffman Estates into a tie for the fifth spot and allowing them to advance out of the sectional to the state meet. To be fair, the reported time for the two girls was identical, but that is because the printed report only goes to two decimal places. I think the computer actually registers more decimal places and uses those additional places to assign the places to the runners.”

Another way to look at the problem at the Niles West finish line, a finish without a chute, occurred to me as I tried to put myself in the role of the IHSA official on the finish line. I am an IHSA official, and I have worked on finish lines as a finish judge.  When I do that job, I call out the order of the close finishes as I judge them on the line.  Like other judges, I yell out things like “first yellow, then blue,” so that the runners are put into the correct order going into the chute by chute workers; I even try to watch to make sure the order going into the chute is correct.  Then I look for the next finishers.  You actually need more than one judge to make sure that another close finish isn’t missed while checking to make sure the order is correct in the chute.

As the IHSA official watches the finish line at a chip timed race without a chute, as at the Niles West meet, no one is putting the runners in order; no one is recording the correct order of finishers as determined by the finish judge.

The finish judge, once again, is apparently supposed to remember the calls that he makes.

In the case of the Omar finish, the IHSA finish judge and official Ron Campbell apparently remembered that particular finish and corrected the results.  But a system that depends upon the memory of an official seems problematic to me, especially when the rule book seems to require two recorders to keep track of those finish judgments.  An official, of course, is only human.  And it seems possible, finally, that Campbell missed or forgot to remember the close finish at 29 and 30 involving Beltran and Vaccaro.  But even if he did make a call at the line in Beltran’s favor—verbally or mentally—and he remembered making that call, a back-up system of recording of that call would still be required in the spirit of the rules.

Unless, once again, the back-up recorder was the video recording of the finish, which the officials apparently did not consult at Niles West.  And if the video is supposed to record finish judgments, the IHSA official at the finish line needs to be performing for that camera, so to speak, calling out those finishes.

In retrospect, Maine South finally might have had a case for a misapplication of the rulebook because the open chip timing finish line at Niles West did not have a system for recording and checking on the torso finishes of the runners.  The video that was recorded was inadequate for that task.  Moreover, there was no chute keeping the finishers in order, and no other recording of the finish order.

As the IHSA cross country advisory board prepares to meet, the Maine South case at Niles West seems to raise a whole lot of problems that need to be addressed when it comes to using chip timing at the sectional and even the regional meets.

Some specific things that might be considered, some of which have been suggested to me as I’ve talked about this with others:

  1.  The finish line needs two cameras, one behind the finish line to record the numbers on the torsos, and one that looks along the finish line to record the close finishes of the torsos crossing the line.
  2. Unless the rule on video review for the regionals and sectionals with an open chip timed finish area is changed to match the state championship rule, we should require a chute that puts the runners in the proper order of finish as determined by a finish judge at the line.  The order of the runners in that chute then should be recorded as the correct order of finish.
  3. If we can’t do these things, we should abandon the torso finish and rely on the chip system.  But even in that case, we need to make sure that we have a back up system and a check system that an official can consult for possible discrepancies—missing chips, chip malfunctions, and finish line mishaps that we can’t even imagine.  This recording system would likely be a video recording.
  4. Perhaps there are special procedures that officials need to follow when they are working as finish judge in a chip timed event–as in making audible calls that are recorded by the video camera on the finish line.
  5. We need to do some education and discussion among ourselves about our different responsibilities and roles when we take jobs like sectional meet hosts and meet directors, games committee members, and even IHSA officials.  Shouldn’t someone in that group serve as kind of an advocate or at least an advice-giver for a coach who finds himself in the position that Maine South coach Greg Nordahl was in?  The rule book can be complicated.  We need people who are willing to help with the job as coaches and officials work together and try to come to a correct and fair decision.  It should not be an adversarial situation.  I do not know that this was the case at Niles West.  But it does seem that Nordahl could have been given more help in terms of sorting through the issues at the finish line.  Giving him more help as he asked his questions might have resulted in producing meet results that we all could accept and believe in, which is what results are supposed to be.


Edit:  Jon Gordon, cross country and track and field coach at Chicago’s Norsthside College Prep High School and a member of the IHSA Advisory committee for cross country, posted to my Facebook wall a link to another story from Florida Milesplit.com about chip timing.  This one has a much better ending:  “Bolles Runners Pick Sportsmanship Over Medals .”


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Filed under coaching, cross country running, IHSA, running

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