24 February, 2014

On the absurdity of milliseconds

While researching for the blog post on Bob Hayes I stumbled upon some stupid comment. Someone had written that Hayes had an advantage because by running in lane 1 he was closer to the starter and thus could hear the start signal before the other athletes. Well, let us ignore that the rules stipulate that: 
where loudspeakers are not used in races with a staggered start, the Starter shall so place himself that the distance between him and each of the athletes is approximately the same
and assume that there were no loudspeakers and that the starter was standing on prolongation of the start line and thus that the start signal arrived first at the ears of Hayes. What was his advantage of H. Jerome, running in lane 4 or H. Figueroa in lane 2? Something of the order of 1/100 of a second. Given that Hayes beat them both by 0.20 s claiming that he had an advantage is just silly (to say nothing of the fact that the track of lane 1 was in a sad state, which definitely costed Hayes another 0.10 s).

However this remark got me thinking. Does it make sense to use an accuracy of a millisecond in athletics? At least one world title has been decided at this time difference. At the 1993 World Championships Gail Devers beat Merlene Ottey (for me the absolute goddess of feminine sprint) by 10.811 versus 10.812. Ottey herself commented this decision by saying “the decision who is better depend upon how to calculate the situation: if more important is the head, Gail won, if body, then I won”. 

Indeed the rules stipulate that “the athletes shall be placed in the order in which any part of their bodies (i.e. torso, as distinguished from the head, neck, arms, legs, hands or feet) reaches the vertical plane of the nearer edge of the finish line”. The difficulty lies in defining in a precise way and on a deformed photo what is precisely a “torso”. For an athlete dipping for the finish shoulders should definitely count but sometimes the judges cannot distinguish them from a part of the neck. For an athlete running at 10 m/s a millisecond corresponds to just 1 cm. Can we be sure of such a precision when a human eye is called upon to disentangle a difficult situation? My answer is a resounding “no”. In the case of Devers and Ottey they simply should have shared the gold medal.

Moreover that event should have prompted a change in the tie—break rules of IAAF. They should have adopted the same attitude as FINA. Swimming used to break ties by measuring to the 0.001 s, but in 1972 at Munich G. Larsson and T. McKee seemingly tied in the men’s 400 individual medley in swimming. They were both timed in 4:31.98 but the precision timer broke the tie and gave the gold medal to Larsson, with a time of 4:31.981 to McKee’s 4:31.983, i.e. a difference of 0.002 s. Given the speeds of swimmers, say 2 m/s, a difference of 1 millisecond corresponds to 2 mm. This would call for swimming-pools having submillimetric accuracy (something totally impossible: even if they were built so, they would no stay so over time). FINA understood this and now swimming calls a tie to the 0.01 s a tie for that position. (Unfortunately, the 1972 400 men’s individual medley result was not changed). Let us hope IAAF decides one day to forget about milliseconds and accept the fact that in some races there can be two winners.

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