back to article How do you measure up at the Olympics?

In Rome in 1960, a very strange thing happened in the men’s 100m freestyle Olympic swimming final: the man who recorded the fastest time was given the silver medal. In the absence of touch pads to record a swimmer’s finishing time, the method of determining the winner was complex in the extreme. Firstly, there were finishing …


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  1. Matthew 3

    Fascinating stuff.

    Thanks for an excellent article.

  2. Gashead

    Reminds me of the English Schools Senior Boys 400M Hurdles semi-finals in 1975. First time around I qualified for the final. Then it was revealed that one set of hurdles in my race was on the wrong marker so they moved them in time for the second semi. Their times stood, we had to run again 2 hours later, bear in mind this is not the easiest of events to recover from. My time was slower of course and I didn't make it through as a fastest loser. I also had a leg of the 4x100M relay in between just to add to the fun.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Back to school days I'm reminded of the house rowing competition one year. Due to size of river "side-by-side" racing was out and each crew rowed down the course with times measured with winner being the quickest. To measure there were two stop watches, one at start and one at finish and someone recorded the start time and finish time of each crew then worked out the time taken when everyone had finished. One year when they did that they found that each crew seemed to be going faster than the previous one .... so they consulted the stop watches and discovered that the one at the start was running "a bit fast" !

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Those people with the guns are wearing watches on the same hand they hold the gun. My logic is to wear the watch on the worst hand and do important stuff with my best hand. Therefore I can only conclude they are publicity shots from a company who sell watches and sports timing gear.

    All that without reading the captions.

    1. AdamWill

      Re: Posers

      Firing a starting gun isn't a particularly sensitive or complex operation, though. You don't have to synchronize it with anything else - it controls everything else (the runners and the timing equipment). The starter can pretty much fire it at whim, as long as it's not _too_ long after the 'set' command. And the operation itself is easy as pie - pull a trigger. So there's no particular reason to use your dominant hand to do it.

  4. Lee Dowling Silver badge


    Is it just me that loses interest in a sport once a fraction of a millimetre or a thousand of a second is quoted as making ANY difference whatsoever?

    Formula One is BORING. The rules make the driving, overtaking and even start dull and a loser is literally a fraction of a second behind the winner. Who cares? Baseball averages are stated to four decimal places. How ludicrous is it to place one player above another because of that sort of difference?

    Similarly, the first sub-ten-second 100m, or four-minute mile, that was an achievement. Since then, the 0.01 of a second isn't at all interesting. Hell, it's swamped by things like wind direction, the "graveliness" of the track or anything else that varies out of control of the runners.

    Even the high-jump records, measured in centimeters, have barely changed in nearly 30 years, but at least you can clearly *see* a difference even if you're measuring using your Homebase Extendable Tape Measure.

    A sport is not just there to be "fastest" by a fraction of a tiny part of a second. It's there to watch, to enjoy, to participate and to test the athlete, not their team of scientists and the local weather.

    We changed the rules on table-tennis so that games are faster and balls more easily visible on TV, we change the F1 rules all the time but still make it so the restrictions place everyone within a second of each other. Why can't we change some events to be actually interesting to watch again?

    When timings start getting to within hundreds or even thousandths of a second and nobody beats a record for 30 years (and if they do, it's literally by the smallest unit of measure possible), can't we just make it more difficult, to distinguish the athlete from the person who ran when the wind dropped slightly or who experienced a tiny slipstream effect from the guy in front, or who has a slightly less frictional swimsuit? Sure, it means that records aren't consistent but they aren't anyway - the 1984 100m runner wasn't wearing what the 2012 100m runner will be, or subject to the same rules or even weather.

    Some of the field events still hold up under their own rules, but can't we just say "Okay, you can use whatever methods you like - get to the end of the track faster than everyone else" even if we have to run each runner/car/bobsled individually? Put some life back into the sports? Make them interesting to watch without having to wait for endless photo-finishes and laser-accuracy to tell us who won?

    Is it any shock that the most popular sports with the everyday person are those that make it OBVIOUS who's won with nice, integer scores/times/records? Even there, we have calls for goal-line technology. You know what, if it's that hard to tell if something critical has happened, make it more obvious - like a physical mechanism that has to flag if something has occurred and is perfectly binary (i.e. basketball - either the ball goes inside the hoop, or it doesn't - not "did it touch the fraction-of-an-inch we hoped it did).

    Make sport fun again. Make it something people can play and watch and KNOW who won and not have to rely on myriad judges and technologies to tell them.

    And while you're at it, bring back the oddballs, and the fun, and restore the amateur element back into the Olympics. Eddie The Eagle is still one of the most memorable athletes ever.

    1. John Sager

      Re: Accuracy

      Nice rant, but a tad misplaced IMHO. People do rave about breaking records, and sportspeople have individual goals, e.g. personal bests, that are very important to them, even though they may not be potential world record breakers. So the absolute measurement is important. But if you think about it, the time, distance, height, whatever is actually less important than the *ordering*. Sport is a competition, and the order is always supreme in a competition. As performance margins at the top in sports get narrower, it becomes more important to measure those small differences accurately. Hence the clever tech so admirably described.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Accuracy

        What is overlooked here is that none of it actually matters. Who cares whether bod A can run faster, chuck a wellie boot further, or piss higher than bod B? Once it did matter if caveman Ig could chuck a spear further than caveman Ug, but the importance was measured by who bought home the most antelope. Now it really, really doesn't matter at all. The world would be a better place if these professional gamers would go and get real productive jobs, and indulge in their athletic hobbies at the weekends in the privacy of their own homes.

        1. SkippyBing Silver badge

          Re: Accuracy

          What you do doesn't actually matter much in the grand scheme of things* either, it's just more people enjoy watching the athletes do their thing than you do yours.

          *That goes for pretty much all of us.

    2. Annihilator

      Re: Accuracy

      "Is it just me..."

      Probably not, but I suspect that whichever hobby or sport you enjoy I'll be sure not to read articles about it and whinge in the comments sections of it.

      Not entirely sure how you plan to "fix" 100m sprints for example, other than potentially introducing pursuit cheetahs, or a custard track. Good luck with those proposals, the rest of us will just enjoy the next few weeks of the elite athletes in the world, who unsurprisingly are within a very tight margin given the constraints of the human body.

      1. Pete 2

        Re: Accuracy

        > Not entirely sure how you plan to "fix" 100m sprints for example

        One way would be to mandate that the participants only consume the products of the sponsors for a month before their event.

    3. dotdavid
      Thumb Up

      Re: Accuracy

      "Not entirely sure how you plan to "fix" 100m sprints for example, other than potentially introducing pursuit cheetahs, or a custard track"

      How about a mandatory Benny-Hill-style Yakety Sax soundtrack?

      1. AdamWill

        Re: Accuracy

        ""Not entirely sure how you plan to "fix" 100m sprints for example, other than potentially introducing pursuit cheetahs, or a custard track"

        How about a mandatory Benny-Hill-style Yakety Sax soundtrack?"

        How about all of the above? I'd watch that all damn year long.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Accuracy

      "Is it just me that loses interest in a sport once a fraction of a millimetre or a thousand of a second is quoted as making ANY difference whatsoever?"

      Quite right, lets forget about all this competitie "thousandths of a second" business and take a leaf out of the primary school sports day book .... ditch all this g*ld/s*lver/br*nze (hope this complies with Olympics Act) and just have Boris with a pile of "well done!" stickers at the finish line

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    BBC3 had one of the inevitable "50 most memorable Olympic moments" last week ... one of the items was the gymnastics from a few olympics ago (forget which) where in the women's vault a series of competitors were having disasterous vaults and failing to land properly (i.e. still completing a sumersault as they hit the ground etc) .... eventually someone decided something must be wrong, got out a measuring tape and disacovered that the vaulting horse was ~5cm too low!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Current Marathon distance was determined by desire to finish in front of Royal Box ... think distance was also affect by late decision to change the route into stadium via a different entrance than originally planned which also added to the length. However, at that time the "marathon" (basically an event invented 12 years earlier for the 1896 Athens games to key into Greek history) was just a "long race of around 25 miles". From what I heard recently one of the things that happened at the 1908 London Olympics was that the UK organisers used the opportunity of everyone being gathered in one place to codify a lot of events/sports so as a result the marathon length would have been standardized and obvious distance to use was the length of that marathon.

  7. Pete 2

    Technological swings and roundabouts

    So there have been cases in the past where a lack of technology has shown the wrong person to be the winner. Compare that with modern developments, not just in swimming but pretty much everywhere, where one athlete's technology (or spending power for the best equipment, training, facilities or support staff) confers an advantage over less fortunate co-competitors.

    We've got to the point in most sports where the winner is not really the best athlete, but the one most able to apply assists, coaching, medical help or even just have the luxury to train 24*7. Is it really "sport" any more, or merely the application of money that makes winners?

  8. SteveK

    "The latest phaser-esque starting gun simultaneously makes a sound in a speaker behind each athlete."

    Excellent - can it make different sounds for each athlete, kind of like the QI buzzers?

    1. JimmyPage Silver badge

      The temptation

      to have each speaker play a different farting noise is overwhelming.

      *Now* we understand why there are so many farting apps ....

  9. andy gibson

    F1 boring?

    How can it be boring when you have the loose cannon that is Pastor Maldonardo on the course?

    It would be safer to put that Maureen Driving School woman in his car.

    1. Annihilator

      Re: F1 boring?

      Pasta Carbonara is good fun, but I preferred Montoya who was a great driver to boot.

  10. Patchy

    If the track and field tape measure was 5% out then the 100m would be only 95m and not 99.5m surely?

    The Reg reported a previous Olympian failure last year,

    1. Annihilator

      "If the track and field tape measure was 5% out then the 100m would be only 95m and not 99.5m surely?"

      "what would the repercussions be if it transpired that the 100m had in fact been the 99.5m? Can you imagine what would happen if, for some unimaginable reason, all the measuring tapes used for field events were found to be five per cent out?"

      Nice try, but it was two separate examples - the clue is in the separate sentences, but also in the phrase "field events", as the 100m is a track event.

  11. richardcox13

    Just Seen Proper Use of El Reg Units by BBC

    This sort of thing is good to see, from

    > Archers in the Olympics have to hit a target the size of a beermat from a distance of seven bus lengths

    1. dotdavid

      Re: Just Seen Proper Use of El Reg Units by BBC

      As someone who often misses a target the size of a beermat from a distance of several pint glass lengths I find that particularly impressive, and it is nice to see it being described in units I understand.


      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Just Seen Proper Use of El Reg Units by BBC

        "I find that particularly impressive"

        Even more so when you read that the South Korean who scored the new world record score today is technically blind!

        1. AdamWill

          Re: Just Seen Proper Use of El Reg Units by BBC

          Hell, that's an unfair advantage - it's the only way to avoid despair setting in.

    2. Fred Dibnah Silver badge

      Re: Just Seen Proper Use of El Reg Units by BBC

      Those would be double decker buses, shurely?

    3. spiny norman
      Thumb Up

      Re: Just Seen Proper Use of El Reg Units by BBC

      The Beeb is really bought in Reg units. In the preamble to the diving, the 10m platform is "the height of two double decker buses".

  12. JetSetJim Silver badge

    Actual distance run from start to finish line in marathon likely to be much more...

    the IAAF/AIMS measurement folks add 1m for every km to ensure the actual distance is not less than a marathon and tries to purely follow the racing line (which no-one will run consistently), so there's a potential for an extra 42m, not 4.2.

    See p6 (Rule 240) of the regs:

  13. Andus McCoatover

    The Looniness of the Long Distance Runner

    Reminds me of the "Hash House Harriers", who described themselves once as a "drinking club with a running problem...."

    Heroes! Now, that's Olympic!

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