Olympic timing August 3, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , trackback
Clocks are very important to the conduct of many Olympic sports. In this posting, I will survey how timing technology features in the games.
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Perhaps the clearest example of timing technology in the Olympics is in the time trials in road cycling. In this event, cyclists race individually around a specified course, starting at 90 sec intervals. Cyclists make their way around the course on their own, not in the company of competitors or teammates. Cameras and transponders are used to determine elapsed time. Ranking is based purely on how fast each cyclist completes the course.
In other sports, time is critical because competitions occur in specific durations. For example, a Judo match runs for three minutes (or less). A men’s boxing match lasts for three rounds of three minutes each (or less). The duration of each match is part of the design of the sport: It is long enough to allow the competitors to show their stuff, but short enough to keep everyone engaged.
Timing plays a subsidiary role in sports where ranking depends on order of completion. In the 100m dash, for example, rank depends on the order in which runners cross the finish line. Because there are typically more competitors than lanes, the race is run in heats, with the first two or three finishers moving on to the next race. In some cases, runners who did not finish sufficiently high in order may be advanced because of their finishing time. Consider how this situation works out in Olympic swimming:
There are preliminaries in the 50m, 100m and 200m distances, followed by the top 16 moving to two semi-final heats, with the winner of each semi-final plus the next 6 fastest swimmers moving to the finals.
In the event of a dead heat, there may be a run-off or swim-off between the tied competitors.
Finally, timing seems to have little role in a few sports. Olympic tennis, for example, does not use time to determine ranking or duration of matches. This situation was evident when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France beat Milos Raonic of Canada after a match of 3 hours and 57 minutes. However, a player can be penalized for delay of game for taking more than 90 seconds between plays or 120 seconds between games.
In races, it is odd that so much emphasis is placed on absolute times, given that order of arrival determines ranking. Whenever I see coverage of an Olympic race, there is just as much emphasis and interest in whether or not an Olympic or world record will be broken as there is on the order of finishing. This interest is reflected in the technological effort devoted to the accuracy of timing in these events. Omega, the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games, has rolled out the Quantum timing system for the swimming events, which can time races down to the 1/10,000th of a second.
Such increases in accuracy should have the (fairly minor) effect of reducing the occurrence of dead heats and, thus, swim-offs. It also increases the chances that a record might be broken, as ever smaller decrements in elapsed time can be recognized as new records. This development, in turn, might drum up further interest among spectators, who seem to find the breaking of records as significant (or more so) than the medals themselves.
Of course, dependance on timing equipment can lead to problems. Consider the outcome of a women’s fencing match between A Lam Shin of Korea and Britta Heidemann of Germany. Heidemann was able to win the bout 6 points to 5 after a 5-5 tie. However, it seems that a timer had not been activated after a stop in the bout, thus allowing the bout to go on after it should have ended. Had the bout finished on time with the 5-5 score, Lam would have advanced instead of Heidemann. Unfortunately, the timing equipment is considered right, even if it is not properly deployed:
The result left Lam in tears and prompted her coaches to file an appeal…
“It was most likely that there was some failure with the equipment or the button had been pressed in time,” said general secretary Maxim Paramonov.
“We were confronted by a dilemma: to take the right decision from a human point of view or the right decision from the point of view of fencing rules, which aren’t perfect. The technical committee decided to take the second route.”
So, clocks can play many roles in Olympic sports. They may be needed to record elapsed time as in time trials, duration as in judo matches, or pacing as in tennis. For television purposes, elapsed time seems to be a crucial factor in any sport. Note the disappointment in the following description of records in the Tsonga-Raonic tennis match:
The 66 games played were the most ever in a three-set Olympic match and the 48-game third set also set a record. It wasn’t clear whether any time records were broken since match lengths weren’t recorded in early Olympic competition.
It is almost as if they did not care about the length of tennis matches back then. How odd!
Clocks make some Olympic sports possible. Others they make feasible and, for the audience, more exciting. The Olympic Games without clocks would be unrecognizable.