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The time lords – measurement and performance in sprinting
  1. P McCrory

    Statistics from

    The modern Olympic Games were founded by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, with the intention of improving health and education, promoting world peace, and encouraging fair and equal competition. Such Victorian values, although inherently ennobling have little resonance in modern sport.

    The motto of the modern Olympic games—Citius, Altius, Fortius (swifter, higher, stronger)—illustrates how winning, not just participation, is just as important now as it was 2500 years ago in ancient Greece. Then, as now, winning athletes were treated like heroes. It is no wonder, then, that athletes have used any means at their disposal to improve their performance.

    In some cases, it is the evolution of technology that alters the sport rather than the athlete adopting ergogenic aids. In sport, there exists a balance between technology and tradition. The ruling bodies either allow technology to advance a sport (such as in the pole vault with the advent of flexible poles or full body swimming suits to reduce friction) or use it to under-engineer a sport (such as modifying the javelin to reduce throwing distances). As long as the same technology is available to all competitors at the same time, then it comes down to the ability and the skill of the athlete. Problems arise when technology is available exclusively to only one group of athletes.


    One of the crucial aspects of sport is measurement. The precision by which performances are judged provide the basis of records and disqualifications.


    In the ancient Olympics, the Greeks had a sprint of about 190 metres called the stadion, which involved a sprint down a straight track and back again. The technology of the day consisted of nothing more than a wooden post at one end to help the runner on his return. Races began with the athletes standing upright, with their toes resting in grooves in a starting stone. Later a starting gate (called the husplex) was used, much like that in horse racing today.

    In the modern Olympics, sprinters start from a crouching position, pushing against starting blocks to help them accelerate. Blocks were introduced in the late 1920s and were first used at the 1948 London Olympics. Instrumented starting blocks appeared in the early 1980s. A device within each starting block records the interval between the gun firing and the first athlete leaving the blocks. A false start is declared if this interval is less than 0.110 of a second, since this figure has been determined as the limit of human reaction time.


    Timing the finish of events has similarly evolved over time. Originally the race winner was determined by a judge or judges who determined the result visually. This has evolved into the extremely complex systems in use in today’s modern Olympics.

    Judging very close running races visually was a problem until photo finish cameras were used. Originally, film-based cameras were used, but this meant that athletes and spectators had to wait until the film was developed before they knew the result. The introduction of the vertical line-scanning video system in 1991 removed human error from the judging of running events. The video image of each athlete as they actually cross the line is shown superimposed with a grid that records the time for each competitor. This system allows judges to declare the result more quickly and more accurately.

    The timing of performance initially used hand-held stopwatches, which in turn depend on human judgment and reactions for their accuracy. The stopwatches themselves also have an inherent inaccuracy of the order of 0.2 of a second, which would correlate to an error of 2 metres in a 100 metre sprint.

    Such inaccuracy presents real difficulties. In the 1960 Rome Olympics, Australia’s John Devitt and America’s Lance Larson finished virtually simultaneously in the 100 metres freestyle final. Two of the three first-place judges had Devitt as the winner whereas two of the three second place judges had him in second place. All three timekeepers using stopwatches gave Devitt 55.2 seconds, while the timekeepers on Larson’s lane gave him 55.0, 55.1, and 55.1 seconds. Because all six measurements were within 0.2 of a second of each they did little to help decide the winner. On the basis of the decisions by the first place judges, the gold medal was awarded to Devitt and the official time for both was recorded as 55.2 seconds.

    In 1964 an electronic quartz timing system was used for the first time in international events, thereby improving timing accuracy to 0.01 of a second. The computerised timing used in events today has increased the accuracy to 0.001 of a second, which is 10 times the accuracy required under current rules.

    With such astounding accuracy, unsuspected problems may become apparent. For example, the timing device has to be stable to about 100 parts per million per degree Kelvin to stop it losing accuracy as the ambient temperature fluctuates. Fortunately such accuracies are becoming easier to solve due to improvements in microchip technology.


    As far as the sprinters themselves are concerned, the technology available to them is fairly limited. Most developments have focused on improving the surface of the track and designing running shoes that are lighter and give a better fit. The winning times for the 100 metre sprint at the modern Olympics show a downward trend that appears to be levelling out (see table 1). Given the data, it is difficult to see any particular moment when there has been a significant increase in performance. It is likely, therefore, that the 100 metre sprint is dominated by human ability and that improved performance is most likely caused by improvements in diet, coaching, fitness, and physiology, with technology playing a relatively minor role.

    Table 1

     Olympic 100 metre times (seconds)

    In the 100 metre sprint, it seems that the strength and power of the athlete dominates, and that no technological development has arrived that requires a change of rules. This in contrast to other sports such as pole vault, where performance improved dramatically with the introduction of flexible poles in the 1960s, and javelin where the authorities altered the rules of javelin by exploiting the laws of physics to reduce throw lengths and make the sport safer for both athletes and spectators. In both cases, it has been the ability of the athlete to adapt to the new equipment, rather than the physics of the equipment itself, that has produced the gains.

    A century on from Baron de Coubertin’s original vision of the Olympics, the motto swifter, higher, stronger reassuringly still depends on the skill of the athlete.

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