Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Slate Article "Explains" But Doesn't Offer Conclusions About the Accuracy of Electronic Timing

Daniel Engber, an associate editor and self-proclaimed "Explainer" at Slate, recently posted an article on their website that asks these questions:

Can we trust track & field records? How accurate are they? How accurate are the devices used to time these events?

He goes on to describe the minutia associated with electronic timing. But does he answer his own questions? I read the entire article several times to try and sort through the facts and to determine whether or not he answers the questions he poses in the article.

He suggests that the finish lines of track, due to their imprecise placement, are not even the true finish line – at least for determination of world records in the 100m and 200m dashes. Instead, he suggests that the real finish line is a virtual "thin slice of space" created by photo finish cameras right above the track's physical finish line. I can buy that.

He talks about how hand-timing is allowed in events longer than 800m and how "official times are often less precise" using this method. Make sense, too. Most longer races don't come down to photo finishes. I might add, however, that most top-quality meets are not hand-timed, not even for the longer events.

He then mentions light beams and how those are used for a "quicker and less accurate reading" than that of the photo finish system. He talks about how these "initial readings are often padded with some extra time so officials never have to adjust up—and take away a world record." His sources are Giles Norton of Lynx System Developers, Inc., and Imre Matrahazi and Istv├ín Gyulai of IAAF, so I don't doubt the veracity of this statement. Besides, the "official" time always does seem to be lower than the initial time. Announcers on TV are always careful to suggest that we wait for the official times, which are inevitably lower than the initial times.

Finally he gives a quick lesson about how the speakers behind each runner are triggered by the starter's pistol, then – in turn – signal the clock in the photo finish system, and all within .001 seconds. I thought those speakers were so that the runners would all hear the gun at the same time, but I guess there is more to the speakers than just that.

He ends the article without summarizing his argument or offering any kind of conclusion. The last words in the article are yet another question posed by the author: "Next question?" What does he mean, "next question?" He hasn't even answered the questions he posed in the article!

I recall a 800m race I ran in high school which was a photo finish between myself and a runner from another school. His hand-timed time was faster than my hand-timed time (my time will remain a closely-guarded secret), and only one of us would go on to the finals, so I thought I was done for the weekend. It was so close a finish that there was a delay of some 5 minutes or so while the officials analyzed the digital images. In the end, I advanced to the finals while the other runner did not because I was ahead of him according to the images from the photo finish.

Hand times are accurate to within .2 seconds, the time it takes our fingers to react to the smoke from the starter's pistol. Photo finishes are much more accurate than that. They are accurate to within 1/1000th of a second. So, to draw some conclusions from my experience and the data from the incomplete Slate article, I would say that electronic times are accurate and can be trusted. Hand times are not as accurate and cannot be trusted as much, at least for record-keeping purposes or in close races. In fact, hand-timed times are usually designated as such in the record books. Hand-timed results are penalized in the IAAF world rankings calculations. Events from 50m to 200m are penalized .24 seconds for hand times. Events from 300m to 500m are penalized .14 seconds for hand times.

The IAAF website states that, "Statistics are an essential part of the sport of athletics, where the precise measure of performances and the recording of the same are fundamental criteria." Most international caliber meets have full electronic timing systems. It should be understood that the hand times from lower-level meets are not quite as accurate as the electronic times from higher-level meets. But, since track and field is all about the competition – not about the times – we shouldn't have to worry about this question anyway. Right? Next question?

Finish Line Pundit Archives