Timing Accuracy at the Olympic Games

In the women’s downhill this morning, Slovenian Tina Maze and Dominique Gisin of Switzerland tied for the gold medal with a time of 1:41.57. Couldn’t the timing equipment have broken that tie by carrying it out to 1/1000th of a second?

Yes, it could have, but Alpine skiing chooses not to do so. In fact, the timing is so precise it could probably measure to the 1/1,000,000th but this belies the fact that course measurement cannot be that accurate.

At Alpine skiing downhill speeds 1/100th of a second is about 10 inches or 25 cm, and 1/1000th would be about 1 inch or 2.5 cm. How accurate is the finish line? If Maze finished on the left side of the finish, and Gisin on the right side, is that accurate enough to measure to 1/1000th, especially when the start line is 3,000 metres away. So if you measure to 1/1000th would you be penalizing one skiier for finishing on one side of the course and not the other, without them really knowing which side is shorter? You could be.

Other Olympic sports have realized this as well and lessened the precision with which they measure finishes. Swimming used to break ties by measuring to the 1/1000th second, but in 1972 at München Gunnar Larsson of Sweden and American Tim McKee seemingly tied in the men’s 400 individual medley in swimming. They were both timed in 4:31.98 but the precision timer broke the tie and gave the gold medal to Larsson, with a time of 4:31.981 to McKee’s 4:31.983 – 2/1000ths of a second. However, swimming officials later reconsidered this, when they were informed that if Larsson’s lane had one extra coat of paint on it, it would have made the difference by shortening the distance he swam over 8 laps and to his touch. So swimming now calls a tie to the 1/100th a tie for that position – however, the 1972 400IM result was not changed.

This famously occurred again in the women’s 100 freestyle in 1984 at Los Angeles when Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead tied in 55.92. The stadium scoreboard listed that time for both but had Steinseifer 1st and Hogshead 2nd initially, so presumably Steinseifer was slightly faster to the 1/1000th, but that mistake was corrected and they were both correctly given gold medals.

At the 1980 Winter Olympics Swede Thomas Wassberg won the gold medal in the men’s cross-country 15 km, defeating Finland’s Juha Mieto. Wassberg was timed in 41:57.63 to Mieto’s 41:57.64. The skiing federation (FIS) realized that this was a ridiculous precision to use for a race lasting over 40 minutes. Cross-country ski time trials have since been timed only to the 1/10th of a second, although in mass start events, photo finishes will be used to break ties.

A similar finish occurred at the 2012 London Olympics in the women’s triathlon in one of the most stirring finishes one could ever see, as Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig and Sweden’s Lisa Nordén raced side-by-side down the last kilometre of the race, neither runner able to shake the other. Spirig was given the win, and the gold medal, with both runners officialy timed in 1-59:48. To observers there, it seemed impossible to choose between them at the finish line, but Spirig was adjudged to have won by 0.009 seconds per the official timing system. That is a ludicrous margin to use in a race lasting 2 hours, and hopefully the triathlon federation will correct this in the future. Ideally they should correct it retroactively and award Spirig and Nordén co-gold medals.

Some sports do time to the 1/1000th of a second – notably at the Winter Olympics, luge. The races are so close that this precision is necessary to separate the sliders occasionally. The track is narrow enough that there should be little difference in where the sliders finish. Speed skating also breaks ties in the 500 metres to the 1/1000th although official times are given in 1/100ths. At the Summer Olympics, cycling uses 1/1000ths in some of the shorter track races.

So Maze and Gisin tied in the women’s downhill – that’s a good and just decision.

14 thoughts on “Timing Accuracy at the Olympic Games”

  1. Re: 2012 London Olympics triathlon, the length of the race should have no bearing on the degree to which times are measured. While I understand the variabilities of the course, the fact is that each athlete had the same opportunity to traverse the course. Regardless of the manner in which the course is measured, as long as the finish line is parallel to the starting line AND perpendicular to the line of finisher “attack” (that is, the angle at which the course of the incoming runner “attacks” the finish line, the distance traveled during the race is, ostensibly, the same for each participant. This assumes that the number of left hand and right hand turns are equal and of equal arc.

    Races are just that – races. Just as there are no “ties” in baseball (despite conventional wisdom that the tie “goes to the runner”), there are no ties in a race, all things being equal.

  2. What is missing is the accuracy at the start. The start wand is a mechanical device still and it barely accurate to 0.01 of a second. Once the FIS decides that using an Eye at the start like we do at the Finish, then we can increase the accuracy of the timing.

    The one thing about timing is that you are only accurate as your weakest link. In this case, it is the start wand that still a simple microswitch.

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