Excitement abounds as the US firms up its Olympic teams and we all gear up for the London 2012 Olympics. Last week was packed – swimming, gymnastics and track & field all held their Olympic trials. Track and Field is king in my family. Four years ago, my siblings and I traveled out to Eugene, OR – which was for my brother and sister a pilgrimage. Track and Field is exciting  and there is this sense of objectivity. You get out on the track and you run the race. And, in most events where the US is strong and most of the final has an A standard, its anybody’s race. The results speak for themselves – except for this year’s Women’s 100m Final.

Controversy and chaos both seem the most appropriate words for this year’s Women’s 100m Women’s Final…where there was a DEAD HEAT TIE for 3rd place between Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix.  USATF had no procedure in place for a tie – as if assuming a tie into the thousandths could not happen. The line official announced Jeneba Tarmoh as the 3rd place finisher…..without looking at the 2nd camera. And for those who know track….its all about the photo finish. So take a look at the photo finish:

Chaos and Controversy….The photo and the electronic timers to the thousandth both clearly indicate both runners ran 11.068 seconds. But since the 1 official prematurely announced Tarmoh as finishing 3rd, she was given a medal, allowed to run a victory lap and spoke to the press. (at least 20mins before the change occurred).

All eyes were on Track and Field then as USATF scrambled to come up with a plan and awaiting the results.  As an ESPN Roundtable indicates, it was ridiculous that USATF did not have a plan for a dead heat and there is general consensus that they should have adopted a policy (like swimming) which just mandated a run off. All agree a runoff is the only fair way to break a track tie…however, the policy had a coin toss as an option (and much ambiguity giving the athletes choice). But, as my sister responded to the “policy” no professional track athlete is going to settle this by COIN TOSS?!? you settle it on the track. A runoff was announced for Monday at 8pm (est) and the world was watching US Track&Field. Drama and athletic prowess were promised by commercials and swimming trials would be interrupted to show the runoff live in prime-time . But then the inconceivable happened – Jeneba Tarmoh backed out of the run off conceding the 3rd spot to Allyson Felix.

In a number of statements and interviews, Tarmoh has indicated that she just was not at peace with the run off because she felt she earned 3rd place and it was unfair for her to have to earn it again. In a Blog “Don’t Blame Tarmoh for no runoff” Jim Caple writes,

After agreeing to the runoff, Tarmoh told reporters Sunday she felt like she had been robbed, that she was the legitimate third-place finisher. I can understand why she might feel this way. She was announced as the third-place finisher after the race. She was allowed to run a victory lap as an Olympic qualifier. She even was presented to the media in a news conference as the third-place finisher.

However Tarmoh might feel, though, she did not finish third; she finished tied for third. An examination of the photo finish showed it was a dead heat.

The fault, according to Caple, rests on USATF who bungled the calling of the event and then bungled the tie-breaker – a run off should be the standard. Tarmoh and Felix should not have had any input in the procedure – a run off or forfeit the only option. However, what I want to highlight here is the disconnect between Tarmoh’s feelings and the actual events….a problem that seems to be endemic in contemporary culture.

Tarmoh has been on an emotional roller coaster that is terrible.  It is awful to think you have finished 3rd and have qualified for the Olympics. But despite the officials missteps – no amount of feeling she’d won a spot on the Olympic team makes it so. She did not finish 3rd, she did not earn that spot over Allyson Felix. The photo finish is clear – it was a dead heat.  Often we hide behind our feelings and impressions as if that is the clearest and accurate reality – as if they are self-confirming.

Emotions and feelings are important to moral and critical analysis. But we must be open to critically evaluate these feelings. One thing that many people struggle with is the idea that my feelings CAN and often ARE wrong evaluation of a particular context. Pope Benedict has many times cautioned about the need to see conscience as beholden to truth, but the same goes of our emotions and feelings when we use them as a basis for moral judgment. Tarmoh could not bring herself to participate in the runoff largely because she viewed it as unfair – because she felt she’d already earned the spot. Now feelings of loss, anger, disappointment, etc were all understandable and justified…but that does not translate into justifying her conviction that she had earned the 3rd place spot. She didn’t earn the spot, she tied for 3rd place.

While this has been an embarrassing moment for USA Track and Field, it should also give us pause to examine ourselves. Do we allow our feelings and emotions to dictate uncritically our perception of reality and responses?

This attitude is pervasive in our culture and those of us who are teachers experience it on a regular basis. This idea that feelings cannot be wrong or judged goes hand in hand with a culture of entitlement. I should receive an A because I feel I did enough work to deserve an A – irrespective of whether or not I achieved an A on any of the assignments. Are we required to demonstrate mastery of a subject matter? Or is it enough that we feel we’ve done enough to “deserve” credit? Often teachers recount conversations where the objection to the grade is – I’m not a B student….not the claim that this particular assignment on its merits deserves an A.

In broader society, the same logic gets applied to politics. Do we critically evaluate our judgments and assumptions based up principles, argument, facts, and sustained reflection? Or do we rest in the comfort zone of our feelings? The debate about Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget and Catholic social teaching has exposed this problem. A lot of the debate hides behind Ryan and others feelings and intentions separated from the actual principles. While many have supported Ryan as invoking prudential judgment, those of us who have criticized his budget have began with the simple fact – subsidiarity does not mean what he claims it means. There is a lot of room for differences in catholic social teaching – but we don’t get to make up what the principles mean based upon what we feel the should mean.

When I give students an article, I tell them – your initial feelings or intuitions are a good starting point. If you’re uncomfortable, dislike, or like an article – that is the first step….now, tell me why? what makes you uncomfortable? what do you like ? sketch out the argument does it hold or not when scrutinized? Just because something makes me uncomfortable does not make it wrong or an irrational argument. Moral judgment requires critical evaluation – feeling one earned the 3rd place spot (even when I was initially given a medal) does not make it so when the photo finish shows a tie.