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How Close Is It? Olympic Timing Tech

/ Source: Discovery Channel

Olympic timing has come a long way from the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics when Ralph Metcalfe won the 100-meter race, according to news accounts, but was placed second after judges reviewed film that showed the trailing edge of the second-place runner’s torso crossed the finish line before Metcalfe.

In Los Angeles 1932, timekeepers held stopwatches that measured tenths of seconds. In London 2012, sprinters’ times are now electronically measured to one-millionth of a second. Finish-line cameras shoot two thousand frames per second to break ties at the finish, double the speed of cameras at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Engineers predict that the future could see new advances in electronics and materials science to further measure the limits of human performance on the track, pool or road. They also foresee new kinds of graphics to make sports finishes more understandable to TV viewers at home.

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”The Holy Grail is to know where all of the athletes are all of the time,” Kelvin Davis told Discovery News. Davis works as the engineering project manager for sports technology at BAE Systems, a UK-based defense contractor.

BAE Systems, which builds aircraft carriers and missile defense systems, launched a five-year partnership with UK Sport in 2008 to provide expertise in structural and mechanical engineering, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics and mathematical modeling to help British athletes get more gold at the London Olympics.

At the Manchester Velodrome, a training facility where cyclists compete on an indoor banked oval track, BAE devised a credit-card sized bar code reader that is scanned by a laser system. The bounceback of the laser identifies each rider on the track.


”Traditional timing was made at two points on the track. What we've delivered is a timing system where it made five times on the track,” Davis said.

UK military officials are using the same barcode system identify and track friend or foe on the battlefield.

The BAE laser-guided system gives coaches and athletes more feedback about their speed during different times of a race, an important piece of data that can help produce a better performance.

Experts also say innovations in micro-electronics and software are driving changes in the pool and on the track. Omega Timing has been the official timekeeper of the Olympics for the past 80 years, and 74-year-old Peter Hurzeler is the company’s chief timer.

Hurzeler says that during at the 1948 London Olympics, it took 25 minutes to process film from the camera at the end of the race. Now the times and positions are known immediately because digital film is available within about 15 seconds of the end of a race.

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“The future in timing will be more virtual graphic systems,” Hurzeler said from London. “We have to produce a product that also my mother understands, that’s very important to show the people on TV to make it easy as possible.”

This year, Omega unveiled the Quantum digital quartz timer for swimming and track cycling that is accurate down to a microsecond -- or one-millionth of a second. That’s 100 times faster than the previous timer, known as the Aries.

While the electronics keeps getting better and better, there’s still room for human decision-making at the end of races. Ties continue to occur in both swimming and track. In June, two women sprinters tied for third place during the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. It hadn’t happened before and officials had no tie-breaking system in place except for flipping a coin or running the race over. After a week of indecision, Jeneba Tarmoh dropped out, leaving the qualifying spot to Allyson Felix.

Ties in swimming are more common, Hurzeler said.

”Statistically, the problem in swimming is that we have too many ties, normally 3 to 4 percent during events in one week,” Hurzeler said.

In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Americans Gary Hall, Jr., and Anthony Ervin tied for first in the 50-meter freestyle. Both were awarded gold, and no silver was given. In London last week, there were ties for silver in the men's 200 meter freestyle and men's 100 meter butterfly events.

Hurzeler said the Quantum timer should eliminate many ties, but now it appears that the electronics are getting more accurate than the pool itself.

At one-millionth of a second, the device can tell differences of 1.7 millimeters. But Hurzeler says that the lanes in concrete-lined pools have surfaces that vary by more than that distance. Even with new kinds of advanced displays, micro-electronic timing and sophisticated transponders being worn by competitors, the human decision-making power of determining who finishes first probably won’t be turned over to the machines, Hurzeler believes.

”As long as we have timing, we will have judges,” he said.