The average human reaction time is between two tenths
and three tenths of a second. The average reaction time of
an Olympic athlete is a bit quicker, not
surprisingly. But the fact is that,
when you’re using a stopwatch, there will always be a small but significant difference
between the moment the gun goes off and the moment the thumb hits the
button. It’s just human nature. And yet it was the stopwatch – this human-operated instrument,
not-quite accurate – that recorded Olympic events
right up to the 1960s. A moment of human distraction could make a serious difference
to the official results. Nowadays, we take it for granted that races are
automatically timed with precision, measured to within a hundredth of a
second, sometimes a thousandth of a
second. So today, we’re able to test
the speed and reaction time of the athletes,
not the timekeepers. There were other limitations
to using stopwatches. At the first Olympic Winter
Games in 1924, timing ski races over long distances, at high
altitude, presented a real challenge. The most sophisticated solution
they could find was to use two coordinated
stopwatches – one at the top
and one at the bottom – to record start times
and finish times. But with no telephones on the mountain to communicate the
data from top to bottom, that meant that the race would have to be
completed and the figures calculated before anyone had any idea who
had won. Trying to think of the quickest
way to get the information from top to bottom, one
timekeeper came up with a creative
solution. So…this is your start time – if you could give it to the
timekeeper at the bottom of the hill,
that would be marvellous. And ready, set, go. Pip-pip! Olympic timekeeping has come
a long way since those days, and one key piece of technology
has vastly improved the science of measuring victory – the photo-finish. The idea of using a camera
to record the winner was first developed in horse
racing in the 1920s. The photo-finish camera records not the distance between the
runners, but the visual time
in 50ths of a second. In the real photo-finish box, shutters over the windows
transform it into a darkroom. Into the developing tanks goes the picture, which, if the
judges have disagreed, will settle
the result beyond all argument. And here’s the finish, 30 seconds after the race is
over. Hard luck, chum,
but the camera can’t be wrong. The photo-finish was first used at the Olympic Games
in Los Angeles in 1932. The men’s 100m final would come
down to two American sprinters – Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe. A hundred-metre dash. Yoshioka snaps off first and that’s Tolan sprinting to the
front now. He’s ahead, Metcalfe a foot
behind. Now Tolan and Metcalfe seem
even. Can you tell who won? Both were given the same time –
10.38 seconds, using a stopwatch, of course. The photo-finish eventually
determined the correct winner. Tolan wins. The world’s record of ten and three-tenths
seconds. The world’s fastest humans. Tolan first and Metcalfe
second, both of the United States, and Arthur Jonath of Germany
third. But there was a snag. Developing film was a complex
art, and it took a while
in the darkroom. A long while. It was several hours later before the timekeeper
was able to declare Eddie Tolan the winner. He was deemed to have got his entire body across the line
first. In more modern times,
the winner is the first athlete to cross the line with any part of his
or her body. Judged by modern rules, Metcalfe, not Tolan,
would have won. But those are human rules
and human interpretations. Another day of the Olympic
Games and there’s no let-up in
the game competitions before huge
crowds, despite the London mist. By the London 1948 Olympic
Games, the technology had moved
on again. Timekeepers managed to get
the photo-finish result out in less than 90 seconds – quite an achievement in those
days of pre-digital technology. On their marks, set,
and they’re off. with Dillard on the outside,
getting away in front. Now, as we watch the race
in slow motion, left to right, it’s Dillard, Bailey, McCorquodale, La Beach, Ewell
and Patton. Dillard still holds his lead, with Ewell resolutely closing
down. At the tape, it’s a
photo-finish. The winner was clear enough. But the photo-finish was required to award the bronze
medal and the silver medal. Again, the photo-finish
was really showing its worth. Let’s do our own photo-finish. Yeah, let’s do it. Have I got something in my
teeth? Digital cameras today capture images at 10,000 frames per
second, allowing instant
photo-finish results. No Olympic Games goes by without several races coming
down to a nail-biting, thrilling – but perfectly accurate –
photo-finish.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. It is important to clarify that the modern rule says that the winner is the first person where any part of the torso reaches the line – this includes shoulder, chest, abdomen, pelvis but excludes head, arms, and legs. The video said "any part of his or her body" which is not entirely clear that head, arms and legs are NOT included.

  2. In modern rules, it is whomevers chest crosses the line first, not any part of the body. Come on, you should at least know this basic rule. Otherwise, you would see sprinters throw their legs out to try to cross first.

  3. In swimming is a tie when swimmers finish within 1/100th of a second as the time recorded or 1:50,000th of a second as the camera records?

Related Post