A small change in emphasis and language regarding video review of finishers at regional and sectional cross country meets was apparently already there in the 2012 rules interpretation presentation on the Illinois High School Association schools and officials web site, which was made available on December 13.
That presentation identifies a change in language from the National Federation of High Schools rule book clarifying the use of “electronic transponders” in producing the results for cross country races. The new language allows for the use of so-called bib chips, as well as mandating that if shoe chips are used, they must be used on both feet. But after presenting those changes, the rules presentation then explains that Illinois has an entirely different rule. Illinois continues to use the torso, not feet, even with chips on both feet, when determining the finish place. Therefore, it will rely, instead, on a video review of the cross country finish to determine finish places: “In Illinois, throughout the state series, meet management is required to provide some form of video review at the finish line. In regional and sectional meets, the video is used to determine the order of close finishes. When it becomes necessary to use the video to determine the order of close finishes, the torso will be used to determine final places, even when computerized chips are used. At the state final, computer chips are used as a timing device and the video review is used as the primary scoring tool.”
But on Saturday, January 14, first in conversation with one of the state’s top track and cross country officials and meet manager of the state track meet John Polka, and then reiterated in an officials meeting by state officials coordinator and rules interpreter Geza Ehrentreu and IHSA assistant executive director Ron McGraw, I learned that in the future the IHSA would require a video review of the finish at regional and sectional cross country meets, just as it does at the state meet. The change to require a video review at regional and sectional meets comes after significant problems arose at three sectional meets in the fall 2011 involving finish lines that used computer chips to record the finishes of the runners.
I wrote a long blog post about those problems in November, focusing particularly on the 2011 Niles West sectional meet. That post compared the language used in the cross country terms and conditions booklet about the use of video at the regional and sectional meets, on the one hand, and at the state meet, on the other. In the 2011 terms and condition, it states that at the regional and sectional meets, “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.” At the state final, however, “Video review will be used to assist in scoring the meet.”
As it was explained by Polka, McGraw and Ehrentreu, the new guidelines, which will presumably result in changes to that language in the terms and conditions, will essentially make the video review the definitive scoring tool for the regional, sectional, and final meets.
Polka and Ehrentreu discussed their experiences with the video review at the state meet, and Ehrentreu has further experience at NCAA championship meets, as well. At the state meet, a review of every single finisher in one state championship race takes between 15 and 20 minutes. While the emphasis is on reviewing the close finishes, which could be identified by looking at the chip timing results, Ehrentreu recommends a full review of the video for all finishers, even at the regional and sectional levels.
At the officials’ meeting, there was discussion about smaller details. The meet referee at these meets should be involved in the placement of the video recording device and the instruction of the camera operators. The new language will apparently not mandate the number of cameras, but two cameras, McGraw seemed to agree, would be best. One camera could focus on capturing the bib numbers of finishers, but a second camera could look directly across or down the finish line to capture the finish of the runners’ torsos. Ehrentreu seemed to feel that even one camera, placed appropriately, might be able to perform both tasks adequately.
The importance of the video review connected to another ongoing discussion. In the state series, runners are told to wear their numbers very high on their chests to help with the video review, obscuring the names which identify their teams. Spectators and even coaches have complained that they can’t identify runners and their teams. Teams might consider redesigning their championship uniforms, it was suggested, to allow for identification below the numbers. A good view of the numbers is essential for the now all-important video review.
The discussion at the meeting noted that in addition to helping sort out close finishes, the mandated video review would solve the problem of phantom runners who cross the finish line but whose chips malfunction or somehow do not record a finish.
It also covers other kinds of chip problems that might arise. After I posted my blog on the events at Niles West, Jon Gordon, coach at Northside College Prep, sent me a link to a remarkable story from the Florida 2A girls state cross country meet. When girls on the New Heritage High School team mixed up their chips and created a problem with the chip-timed results, they were disqualified and their finishes erased from the team scoring results. As a result, they were not awarded the second place medals that they had earned on the cross country course. The happy ending was that the team that got the medals, perennial state power Bolles High School, subsequently presented them to the disqualified team in their own impromptu and emotional ceremony.
Because Illinois gives the video review primary importance in the determining of the finish result, overriding the chips, the Florida situation cannot happen in Illinois.
After the officials meeting at Oak Park, I introduced myself to Ron McGraw and spoke briefly. It is not my habit yet, which I suppose it should be, to identify myself as a blogger and alert people that we are talking on the record, so to speak. I had emailed McGraw in November with a long list of questions about the events at the Niles West sectional, running through the issues that I later wrote about in the blog. I also sent a second follow up email asking simpler and more direct questions. I did not get a response to either email. In subsequent emails and conversations with John Polka, I was told that I would not get a response because the IHSA simply stands behind the decisions made by its experienced officials at the Niles West meet.
On November 29, 2011, the IHSA advisory board for cross country held a meeting in which the problems at the chip-timed sectionals were apparently discussed, but there was not much comment about it in the published minutes after the meeting: “The committee reviewed the recommended procedures for evaluating the finish of state series events (special emphasis on sectional meets). IHSA Officials will be reminded that the final evaluation of all races is their responsibility. A camera at the finish line will continue to be mandatory. The Meet Referee has the option to use the images captured on the video to determine the order of finish as they deem necessary. The video is to be viewed only by the meet officials and meet management. Results are not to be posted by meet management until the meet referee has made them official by placing his/her signature on the written copy and giving permission to post.”
I had sent my blog post to Gordon, who is a member of the advisory committee, and to Polka, who participated in the meeting, as well. But it was not clear to me after reading these minutes whether IHSA officials had fully understood the seriousness of the problems as I had tried to explain them.
Polka reiterated the basic position that the IHSA stood behind its officials when we talked for a long time in December at the seasonal Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association gathering of coaches held at Angelo’s restaurant in Elmhurst. It strikes me again that I did not make it clear to Polka at that time that we were talking on the record, and to be fair I will consider his comments as off the record. But I pushed pretty hard with my basic argument that there is a serious problem with the open chip-timed finish lines which do not have a finish chute that puts runners in order when they finish. Even if an IHSA official made a call on the order in which runners had finished using their torsos, I insisted, with the open finish line there was no way to record that finish without a finish chute. The chips record the finishes of the feet, not the torsos; no one makes a record of the torso calls, and how could an official remember them? Require a chute, I had insisted, or get rid of the torso finish and turn the finish over to the chip timers officially.
Mandating the video review, which seems to be a change from the position announced in the advisory committee minutes, essentially addresses that problem with the open finish line with a simpler solution. The video tape will record the torso finishes of the runners, and the review of that tape will establish a definitive order of finish for all the runners in the race.
Whether my conversation with Polka or my blog or my emails had any impact on the new IHSA decision probably doesn’t matter to anyone but me. I did not ask McGraw directly when I had my chance to do so whether my emails or my blog post had been helpful in any way. What I should be happy about, finally, is that I was part of a larger process which produced a change that should help with the situations that came up in the sectionals last fall. As a coach and as an official, I am much more confident about getting correct results at the high stakes sectional meets in the future by using the video review.