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The Hi-Tech Side of Athletics

The HiTech Side of Athletics
James Dunaway for the IAAF
30 July 2001 - If you were attending an athletics meeting thirty years ago, you'd have seen a group of officials crouched at the finish line, stopwatches in hand, eyes intent on runners approaching the finishing tape. Another group was watching the runners closely to decide (or sometimes to guess) who finished first, second and third. Without those timers and judges there would have been no-one to tell us who had won, and how fast the winner had run. 

Sometimes the stopwatches disagreed. If the first-place watches in a 100-meters race watches read 10.2, 10.3 and 10.3, the official time was recorded as 10.3. If the race were close, second place might be timed in 10.2, 10.2 and 10.3 -- in which case the second-place finisher should have been credited with a time of 10.2 -- faster than the winning time!  Since this was obviously impossible, the head timer would "adjust" the second-place time to 10.3.

The finish judges would huddle, and sometimes argue, about who won and who was second. If the race were important as well as close, the arguments might go on for months. Even at best, two or three minutes would go by before the official result was announced.

Them days is gone forever. Today, technology does the job from start to finish -- and does it faster, more accurately and, most importantly of all, more fairly -- than it ever was possible in the "good old days.

The Seiko Start and Auto Recall System, for example, will be used in all races of 400 meters or less in Edmonton. The starting blocks have tiny speakers so each runner hears the starting gun at exactly the same instant. Pressure plates built into the blocks and coordinated with the starter's pistol measure the interval between the start signal and the athlete's foot pressure against the blocks. Since it is virtually impossible for a human being to react to a sound stimulus in less than one-tenth of a second,  IAAF rules require that any sizable increase in an athlete's foot pressure in less than 0.10 second must be considered a false start. When this happens, instead of a recall gun, an electronic sound automatically informs runners, officials and spectators that a false start has occurred -- and automatically identifies the athlete who caused it.

If no recall signal sounds, Seiko's electronic photo-finish system goes to work. As the runners approach the finish line, a "slit-video" system scans an ultra thin segment precisely aligned with the finish line -- and scans it 2,000 times per second -- providing an unbroken image of each athlete crossing the line, and coordinated with the athlete's time. In a few seconds, the scoreboard will show the order of finish and each runner's time to 1/100th of a second. And if two athletes finish in a virtual dead heat, the finish image can be greatly enlarged and the finishing time read to 1/1000th of a second so the judges can separate them.

You'll notice a timing display on the infield near the finish line. This delivers a "flash" time as the winner of each race breaks a light beam at the finish line. It's not the official time, because the light beam might have been broken by the winner's hand rather than the torso, but it is instant, and it's almost within 0.01 or 0.02 of the official time.

Was the race wind-aided?  Seiko has built an electronic wind gauge into the system. By the time you've read the flash time and looked for the wind-gauge sign 50 meters from the finish line, the wind-reading is already being displayed in meters/second, as +1.9 (aiding wind),  or -1.1 (opposing wind).

In races of 400 meters or more, the leader's split times can be taken and displayed electronically for every lap, or even for every 200 meters -- so spectators can know instantly if the race is being run at a record pace.

When it comes to the road races -- the marathons and the walks -- Seiko and an Italian company called Winning Time have jointly developed a transponder-based system that times and records the 5km splits of every competing athlete. It uses a lightweight, weather tight transponder chip carried in a Velcro ankle bracelet. At each 5km point on the course, the athlete passes over a mat which contains an antenna that sends out a signal to the athlete's chip and receives a the athlete's identifying code in return. This is matched to the athlete's time and recorded, and can be displayed on the stadium scoreboard less than a second after the athlete crosses the mat. Like the flash timer, these splits are not official. But they're almost always accurate within a second.

To measure field events, Seiko developed its Electronic Distance Measuring system, a system accurate to 1/100,000 of a meter.  Once the officials mark the landing point of each jump or throw, infra-red beams are sent from the starting point (in most cases the foul line) and the landing point using an instrument similar to a surveyor’s transit. The infra- red beams are reflected back to the theodolite, and the distance is calculated using the same algebra most of us learned -- and promptly forgot -- in high school. But unlike high school, the answer is not only almost instantaneous, it's also always right!