Column: Shaunae Miller dove across Olympic finish line. So what?

At Olympic track & field in Rio, Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller won gold in Monday’s frantic 400 meter final.  Miller dove across the finish line to finish in 48.44 seconds, just .07 ahead of Allyson Felix, who with silver became the most decorated female track & field athlete in American Olympic history.

The dive by Miller was certainly unorthodox, and many on social media criticized the University of Georgia runner.  While I, as an American, understand why American fans are upset that Felix was defeated–albeit on a move many don’t remember ever seeing in an Olympic race–I have no problem with Miller’s dive.

Diving at the line is within the rules, and in my opinion gives the athlete no advantage.  The reasoning is simple:  If diving over the finish line–or for that matter diving into first base in baseball–created an advantage, every competitor would do it.  Just as youth baseball coaches teach players to always run through the first base bag, track athletes are taught to run through the finish line.

And while the move was controversial among U.S. fans because an American ended up on the short end of the outcome, it turns out Americans have done the same thing in the past.  Natasha Hastings (who finished fourth Monday) dove across the finish line in the same event at this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials, finishing third to secure her trip to Rio.  National roles were reversed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when an American beat a Bahamian as David Neville dove to beat Chris Brown by .04 seconds to win bronze in the men’s 400 meter final.

Another factor in Miller’s dive is that, at least in my opinion, intent cannot be proven.  Miller’s time in the event was a personal best, and after the exertion of running the race of her life under Olympic pressure was clearly exhausted coming down the stretch.  While it is possible the dive was an intentional attempt to gain any minuscule edge the move may create in the right circumstances (which, as I said, is within the rules), it is also possible that Miller’s body gave out as she reached the end of the race, and out of sheer fatigue she dove (or fell) across the line instead of running through it.  Slick conditions on the track, caused by earlier rain, could have also been a factor.

That being said, I will commend Miller for doing what she had to do to win, including putting her body on the line by diving onto the track.  The landing of the dive couldn’t have been pleasant for Miller, especially after such a physically demanding race, and she laid on the track in exhaustion for over three minutes.  Even Miller herself has little memory of what was going through her head as she dove.

“I don’t know kind of what happened,” Miller said. “My mind went blank. The only thing I was thinking was the gold medal and the next thing I was on the ground.”

Whether the dive made an actual difference or not, Miller likely would have won the race anyway, although it would have been close.  While Felix was closing as the sprinters ran the final 50 meters of the race, Miller appeared to still have a slight lead before the dive.  Even if a dive makes the runner’s torso cross the line a fraction faster (the torso is the part of the body that the time is given for), I have no reason to believe a dive could be solely responsible for Miller’s entire .07 second margin of victory, even as small as that margin is.

While her execution of the finish was unusual, Shaunae Miller still ran the race of her life on her sport’s biggest global stage to upset Felix, marking a career-defining accomplishment.  And she earned it.