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Measuring Is a Matter of Millimeters

Sophisticated technology is being used not only to score but to give insights into events

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 23, 1996



ATLANTA

Looking out upon Atlanta from an elevated perch in the Olympic press center, media members spy a number of signs and billboards. One teases readers by raising an unusual question: How did the Greeks time races with those sundials?

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This unusual history tester is clearly meant to be whimsical. Nonetheless, it succeeds nicely as a reminder of how the modern Olympics, including the Centennial version here in Atlanta, are timed and measured to a fare-thee-well.

During the ancient Games, of course, order of finish was the important thing, not one's time. Yet since Baron Pierre De Coubertin revived the Olympics in 1896, the world has enjoyed the ability to gauge Olympic efforts with a high degree of precision, allowing for comparisons and records that tell of human athletic progress.

"Time is a mobile image of eternity," Plato once said, and capturing these images accurately has become an increasingly sophisticated responsibility for the official timekeepers of the Games.

For the first time in history, the task of both timing and scoring has fallen to one company, SWATCH, whose parent company, SMH Group, has been involved in the Olympics since 1932. That's when the Games first enlisted a private company to act as the official timekeeper.

Nicolas Hayek, SMH/SWATCH's president and chief executive officer, considers timing and measuring to reside at the very heart of the Olympics.

"In a sense," he says, "there is an ethical quality to the time measured at the Games in Atlanta, because it involves a moral dimension: It judges athletes' performances with total equality."

At times, the technology hasn't been in place to ensure this. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, swimmers Lane Larson of the United States and John Dewitt of Australia finished the 100-meter freestyle together. Three judges were assigned to each swimmer and those timing Lane clocked him with their eletromechanically controlled timepieces finishing in 55.0, 55.1, and 55.1 seconds. Dewitt was clocked in 55.2 seconds across the board.

Lane's 55.1 beat Dewitt's 55.2, but the responsibility for determining the order of finish in close races rested with the head judge, who saw it otherwise and declared Dewitt the winner. Not surprisingly, touchpads were introduced to swimming a few years later.

The timing became so technologically sophisticated that Olympic officials realized they had to back off a bit.

At the 1976 Games in Montreal a mere thousandth of a second separated the first and second place finishers in the men's 400-meter individual medley race. This, however, was considered too microscopic a difference since lane lengths might vary imperceptibly. Now Olympic swimming races stick to hundredths of a second in deciding the outcome.

Attention in timing races is not limited to the finish. Sensitive equipment sleuths out who gets head starts the naked eye misses.

Studies of human reaction time have determined that a runner cannot respond to a starter's gun in less than 1/10th of a second. If pressure on the starting block occurs before that, a false start is signaled.

This technology led to German decathlete Jurgen Hingsen's disqualification in the 100-meter run at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

After jumping the gun twice, Hingsen did so a critical third time by beating the gun by 1/1,000th of a second. The starter heard the false start signal in his headphones and had to eliminate Hingsen.

The Centennial Games are a marvel when it comes to keeping track of scores, times, and distance measurements, even when sometimes the main purpose in doing so is to add interest and insight for spectators and viewers.

In basketball hang-times are measured, giving information of how long leaping players are in the air. In yachting, a geopositioning system allows onshore spectators to view televisions that show the exact locations of each craft.

In track and field events, speed, acceleration, and the time between hurdles are available. And in marathon running and road race cycling, computer type chips similar to those used at this year's Boston Marathon are employed to help sort out the competitors at the start and finish, as well as monitor their progress.

Track and field has four throwing events (javelin, discus, shot put, and hammer) and an equal number of jumping events (high jump, long jump, triple jump, and pole vault).

The measuring of all these events is done electronically using trigonometric calculations using known angles and distances.

This system is accurate to within 5 millimeters over a distance of 100 meters.