Mike Rowbottom @ITG

You may have seen it. You probably have. It’s all over social media. Athlete as Superman.

The footage that has gone viral is from last weekend’s men’s 400 metres hurdles final at the Southeastern Conference Track & Field Championships in the United States, which concluded with the gorgeously named Infinite Tucker, a junior at Texas A&M University, beating a team-mate to the line with a fully-fledged, arms-flung-forward, horizontal dive.

Second in the event the previous year, Tucker was clearly not ready to settle for another runners-up spot. Infinite and beyond…

"I saw my mum at the finish and I jumped to give her a hug," he told interviewers afterwards. "That’s all it is."

Well, not quite.

The reaction of many upon seeing such an unusual finish to an athletics race is to wonder aloud, "Is that legal?"

The question asked when this kind of finale has occurred in the past is well put - how can you win a foot race if your feet aren’t on the ground?

Fair enough to wonder, but the rules are clear. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rule 164.2 being the relevant one: "The athletes shall be placed in the order in which any part of their bodies (i.e. torso, as distinguished from the head, neck, arms, legs, hands or feet) reaches the vertical plane of the nearer edge of the finish line as defined above."

The highest-profile example of the flying athlete was surely the women’s 400m final at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where 22-year-old Shaunae Miller (now Miller-Uibo), hunted down the finishing straight by multiple world and Olympic champion Allyson Felix of the United States, flung herself over the line in what looked like a final despairing effort.

I was in the not especially full Rio Olympic Stadium that damp night, and as the Bahamian hit the deck the nature of the crowd noise altered - a shift from excitement to what you might call aghast-ment.

From my seat, with a good view of the line, I honestly thought Miller, who had set off very fast, had run out of gas and blown it. Thankfully, unlike the television and radio colleagues around me, I didn’t need to call it.

The dive, or fall, worked. Miller claimed gold in 49.44sec, with Felix, who finished in traditional fashion, having to settle for silver in 49.51.

There was a strange symmetry to this. Eight years earlier at Beijing 2008, American 400m runner David Neville had earned the bronze medal by flinging himself across the line ahead of Miller’s compatriot Chris Brown, winning by four hundredths of a second.

Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas earns the Olympic gold medal in horizontal mode in the women's 400m at Rio 2016 ahead of Allyson Felix of the United States ©Getty Images
Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas earns the Olympic gold medal in horizontal mode in the women's 400m at Rio 2016 ahead of Allyson Felix of the United States ©Getty Images

Shifting back to the Olympics held 88 years earlier in Antwerp, the men’s 100m title was won by another American athlete who was famed for his flying leaps at the finish - Charley Paddock.

Looking at footage of that long-ago affair, and at pictures of his less successful finish at the Paris Olympics four years later, you would have to say that Paddock was a leaper rather than a diver. In Antwerp, he crossed the line airborne, with arms outstretched.

Skipping forward to 2012, in the run-up to the London Olympics, Felix was tangentially involved - perhaps - in two other high-profile instances of athletes diving for glory. At that year’s US Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon she and Jeneba Tarmoh had contested the third women’s 100m place so evenly that judges could not separate them, and called for a re-run.

In the end, for reasons that were never entirely clear, Tarmoh decided against taking part and the place went to the older athlete.

But the incident was cited as background to two subsequent moments of elevated ambition at the finish line by 110m hurdler Jeffrey Porter and 400m hurdler Bershawn Jackson.

Porter’s dive did the trick, earning him the third spot for London 2012. Jackson hit the deck but not the jackpot, missing the third and final qualifying place by a fraction. Down and out…

But Jackson’s effort was valuable inasmuch as it pointed up the risk of such a manoeuvre. And not just in terms of placing.

On the very same evening that Miller won her 400m gold, but a couple of hours beforehand, 24-year-old Brazilian hurdler Joao Vitor de Oliveira reached the semi-finals of the 110m hurdles with a proper Superman effort which enabled him to beat South Africa’s Antonio Alkana by one hundredth of a second.

De Oliveira subsequently told the Daily Telegraph:  "I always do that, it’s no accident. I broke my ribs doing it in China."

Happy landings - Joao Vitor de Oliveira dives over the line and into the men's 110m hurdles semi-finals at Rio 2016 - just a few hours before Shaunae Miller dove to gold in the women's 400m final ©Getty Images
Happy landings - Joao Vitor de Oliveira dives over the line and into the men's 110m hurdles semi-finals at Rio 2016 - just a few hours before Shaunae Miller dove to gold in the women's 400m final ©Getty Images

Diving in athletics is dangerous. It is also debateable.

In the wake of Miller’s win, ESPN reporter Darren Rovell set up an informal poll on Twitter to see whether fans were in favour of her move. Of the first 3,000 respondents, 53 per cent felt it should not have been allowed.

Of course, such speculation was, as the IAAF rules make clear, strictly irrelevant. And of course, it is likely that a good proportion of those respondents came from the United States.

One of those supporting Miller at the time was US Olympic 100m hurdler Lolo Jones.

She tweeted:  "People are mad Miller won with a dive but most pro's at one point have used that tactic to win. Miller didn't cheat Allyson, she won fair."

As the infinite interest of the last few days has demonstrated, however, there remains a sense of novelty about athletes diving for victory.

It feels almost like a sporting parallel to long throws in football. Back in the 1970s, followers of the English Football League experienced similar frissons of doubt and wonder as Ian Hutchinson of Chelsea began sending in long throws that were like mortar bombs landing in the penalty area.

It was as if Chelsea were taking a corner instead of a throw-in, and it was one such throw of Hutchinson’s that led to the goal which won his team the FA Cup against Leeds United in the famous, and infamous replay of the 1970 final.

It may not have been what throw-ins were created for - a simple means of re-starting the game after the ball had gone off - but it was entirely legal, and very soon widely copied.

Dick Fosbury wins the Olympic high jump gold medal at Mexico City 1968 with a revolutionary technique that, unlike diving over the line, has proved to be reliably effective ©Getty Images
Dick Fosbury wins the Olympic high jump gold medal at Mexico City 1968 with a revolutionary technique that, unlike diving over the line, has proved to be reliably effective ©Getty Images

A similar feeling of puzzlement and dismay must have gripped many high jumpers in the late 1960s when Dick Fosbury started to approach the bar facing the wrong way. After this US athletics pioneer had won the Olympic gold medal in 1968, everybody started jumping the wrong way, and so it remains today.

The difference in the dive finish, however, is that it is not as patently beneficial as the Fosbury Flop. If it were, everyone would be flinging themselves over the line like lemmings.

Once your feet leave contact with the ground at the finish line there’s no more accelerating. You just have to hope and pray you have sufficient momentum.

The athletics dive, then, remains just one of an infinite variety of finishing strategies.

Among the many who have viewed the horizontal hurdler clip with interest in the last few days is Katharine Merry, who won an Olympic bronze medal for Britain in the women’s 400m at Sydney 2000 and ran a personal best of 49.59 the following year.

"I’ve watched that hurdler several times over the last few days," Merry told insidethegames. "It was a piece of art!

"I have a three-fold reaction to it.  When I see it my first reaction is that I like it because it shows such a will to win.  But is it in the spirit of the sport?  Not really. Because you are not running through the line. Then again, it is not against the rules, and you can’t argue with that.

"My husband asked me how I would have felt if someone had beaten me like that. And you know what – I would have thought, 'fair play'. But I would never have gone into a race planning something like that. For one thing, it’s not easy to do.

"But I think what happened at the weekend was different from the Rio 400m final. I think by the end of that race Shaunae was just physically knackered. I’ve run the 400 at that kind of pace and I know how the lactic feels by the end of it. That’s what Shaunae says about the race now. I don’t think it was a plan. I think her legs gave way.

"The nearest thing I saw to it when I was running was seeing Colin Jackson dip so low in the 110m hurdles, with his arms flung back, that he went below the beam.

"Who knows, maybe this might prompt the IAAF to look again at their rules. But it would be very difficult to prove whether runners had simply fallen, as I think Shaunae did, or whether they had dived deliberately. A bit like it is in football, in fact."

Britain's former European indoor champion and world bronze medallist 800m runner believes Shaunae Miller-Uibo is an athlete who simply gives everything her body has on big occasions - and sometiimes pays for it ©Getty Images
Britain's former European indoor champion and world bronze medallist 800m runner believes Shaunae Miller-Uibo is an athlete who simply gives everything her body has on big occasions - and sometiimes pays for it ©Getty Images

Britain’s 2011 European indoor champion and world 2009 bronze medallist at 800 metres, Jenny Meadows, noted that Miller-Uibo, as she was by then, had suffered a similar apparent power failure in the final of the IAAF Championships in London two years ago.

“Personally I have never had to dive for the line; although remember as a youngster falling as I tired and my legs just went beneath me on a cold wet track in Wigan during a 200m which made the local crowd gasp in the stands,” she told insidethegames.

“I know Colin Jackson was the King of the Dip Finish but what the young man did at the weekend (which was an internet sensation) was very last resort - 'I’m going to get there and I don’t care about life after the line' stuff.

“The thing is, he would have taken the win anyway but he obviously made the split second decision to double his chances.

“The most high profile and worthy of the most merit being on the line is certainly Miller-Uibo over 400m in London 2017.

“That was very different in as much as she could not even control it. Her body just gave in and she tripped over her own leg/foot and thereby lost the world title in that moment.

“It is fascinating for the general public that athletes cannot sometimes run one more step or respond as quick as they need their bodies to in the dying moments of a race.

“Likewise, it takes a committed athlete to hurl themselves chest first across the finish line of a race to try to secure a better outcome. Committed to the cause!!”