When you think of the Olympic race where the sprinters are all right at the finish line and one barely crosses ahead of the others. You then learn that a new world record has been set by 2 100th of a second – wow! Your next thought may well be how do they know that? Thats an extremely small amount of time.
To be able to track and time these extremely minute time intervals various equipment has to be employed including high-speed digital cameras, infrared sensors, and a myriad of other devices. With these timing tools the measurements can be accurate all the way down to one-millionth of a second which is a microsecond.
How fast is a microsecond? An average camera flash illuminates for 1000 microseconds. A human eye blink is about 350,000 microseconds (1/3 of a second). In short being able to measure down to a microsecond is incredibly accurate.
Two venerable companies have been the official time keepers for the Olympics – Omega and Seiko. Just hearing their names conjures pictures of people holding stop watches or looking at their wrist and timing the athletes. That might have been true in before the advent of our modern technology.
What really happens in Olympic timekeeping is much more advanced than a standard watch type device. When the proverbial gun goes off for a race its actually a digital signal that happens to also produce a “gun shot” sound. Careful steps are taken to ensure every participant hears the sound at the same time so there is no advantage to hearing the sound first or sooner. The start time is digitally recorded.
At the other end of the race a digital camera samples 2,000 times a second the participants crossing the finish line. The images are then digitally shipped off to a computer which does a whole bunch of complex analysis of the images to determine when each participant crossed the finish line and the exact time it took them from start to finish.
Other technology that is used are tracking devices. For example in a marathon where the race lasts for well over two hours, a different method is used to track the running time. Each runner has an radio frequency identification (RFID) tag on their shoe. The RFID acts like an antenna and special mats along the running path of the marathon can track the runners progress and time.
For events where the participants are moving at a very fast rate such as sledding and other high speed events a series of infrared emitters and receivers to detect when a participant crosses the beam. That data is then sent back to computers for tracking the overall timing and positioning in the race.
The technology continues to advance in the science of timing. In the 2012 Olympics Omega introduced four new technologies:
Quantum Timer – This new timer has a resolution of one millionth of a second. These timers provide over one hundred times greater resolution than previous timers.
Athletics Starting Block – Understanding the reaction time of a runner is critical in and these blocks will measure the time it takes for the runner to create force against the block and not just when they physically move.
Swimming Show – These lights on the starting blocks will immediately indicate when the top 3 swimmers touch their pads at the end of the race.
Open Water Gate – These gates will provide ongoing interval timing information for swimmers in longer races.
These aren’t the days of the stop watch figuring out how fast you are. These technologies have to be used in training as well. To be an elite athlete you have to know if your producing elite level times during your training. As athletes continue to push the limits of the human body and training technology to break records the technology to record and analyze the time involved will continue to evolve.