The Frontal Cortex

Fractions of a Second

I really don’t understand how Olympic athletes deal with the grief of losing by 1/100th of a second. That’s an incomprehensible amount of time and yet it’s the defining difference in the biggest event of their lives. I can only assume that, if I lost by a fraction of a second, I would have recurring nightmares for many years afterwards, dreaming of all the ways I could have reached the wall just a little bit faster.

In the post-race interviews, however, I’m always struck by the equanimity of the athletes. Dara Torres, who lost by 1/100th of a second in the 50 meter freestyle, just shrugged off the loss saying something about how “sometimes you win by that amount and sometimes you lose.” And she seemed sincere! Perhaps having more experience with these tight races teaches the athletes to adopt a more stoic poise, since they realize that, in the end, there’s a large amount of fate and fortune involved. (Sounds like the serenity prayer, I know.) They spend their life training for an event fully aware that it might still come down to the margin of error.

And I thought this was interesting:

Prior to the development of OMEGA touch pads, finishing times in swimming competitions were measured with handheld stopwatches by 24 timekeepers, three of whom were assigned to each of the eight lanes. OMEGA touch pads made their Olympic Games debut at the Mexico 1968 Olympic Games. Reacting to very slight pressure from the swimmer’s hand but not to the movement of the water, the pads allow swimmers to “stop the clock” with their own hands. The time thus registered automatically becomes the official race time for each swimmer.

OMEGA touch pads and starting blocks are part of an integrated timing system capable of recording times to the nearest 1/1000th of a second. However, because it is not possible to build swimming pools in which each lane is guaranteed to be precisely the same length, Olympic and World Records are still recorded to the nearest 1/100th of a second.

Comments

  1. #1 Rachael
    August 17, 2008

    Huh, three timekeepers to each lane… Were the times averaged? Interesting…

  2. #2 Eve
    August 17, 2008

    Wow, that’s something I would have never considered. Imagine being in the “long” lane! I wonder if people strategize to be in a particular lane for that reason. I’m sure grabbing a lane on the edge with less water turbulence would probably be the most advantageous, but do they really think about the length of the pool? Does each team have a pool-measurer to figure out which lane they should aim for? That would be hilarious.

  3. #3 Mike
    August 17, 2008

    Eve, when you’re talking about thousandths of a second, by “longer lane” they mean that tiny imperfections in the pouring of the concrete can make a difference. Not that there’s a general slant or anything measurable about the pool. It’s not even that a lane itself is longer so much as some parts of the wall in each lane might be somewhat longer or shorter.

    In the 72 Olympics, I believe (possibly 76), a gold-medal was actually lost by a thousandth of a second. Imagine that.

    Interestingly, the pads still calculate races to the thousandth of a second, so when swimmers tie, the timing officials can find out who really won. They’re not allowed to say anything, of course.

  4. #4 Jen
    August 17, 2008

    I lost my first indoor college rowing sprint by 2/100 sec. It’s awful for sure – because it’s a breath of air, a slight shift on the seat, a mechanical something-or-other and you lost. You responded to the start gun just a split-second later, maybe. Who knows. But then again, it’s not so bad because you finished at virtually the same time as the winner.

    There were no medals involved, but I still think about what I could have done differently.

  5. #5 Brian
    August 17, 2008

    Actually, Eve, the middle lanes are the most advantageous. Or so says my fiancee, who is an ex-swimmer, and one whom I trust to know these things.

    After reading a little bit more about it, though, it would appear that it matters less now than it used to. Though technological advances in pool construction have largely taken care of most of these problems, the outside lanes received not only the turbulence from all of the inside lanes spreading outward, but also the rebound turbulence off of the wall. So the outside lanes were pretty crap to swim in, in the beginning.

    Now I think it’s mostly tradition – higher seeded swimmers go into the middle so that a viewer can easily focus on the drama in the pool.

  6. #6 Phil
    August 18, 2008

    I think that having the chance to give your best against the best swimmers in the world is enough reward.

    The medal is just an anecdote (a highly desirable one, though). For sure, any of these athletes is not going to forget what an amazing experience is to represent your country in the Olympics.

  7. #7 Janne
    August 18, 2008

    Phil, the sponsorship money – and speaking engagements, and merchandizing opportunities – are very different depending on if you came in first, second or somewhere in the middle of the pack. The medal is rather more than an anecdote; it determines which kind of post-olympic and post-career life you will have. Sportswear spokesman and branded goods, or coaching at a second-string college.

    Sports at that level is a business, not an altruistic hobby.

  8. #8 Ian
    August 18, 2008

    “However, because it is not possible to build swimming pools in which each lane is guaranteed to be precisely the same length, Olympic and World Records are still recorded to the nearest 1/100th of a second.”

    What nonsense! They can’t build the pool with that kind of exactitude, but they could measure the distance between (or alignment of) the starting block and the finishing touch pad with a laser to any degree of accuracy they wanted.

    Four years from now (and probably much less), all of this will be forgotten (except for Phelps!) and it’ll start all over again. None of it really lasts.

  9. #9 Phil
    August 18, 2008

    Janne, I see your point but regardless of all the sponsorships if you give your best there is nothing to regret.

    Anyway, if you can’t leave the past behind, you are not living in the present and is less likely for you to excel at the next competition, business, or anything.

    My personal view is that if life is defined by a rounded piece of metal I would rather made my own rounded piece of metal.

    Btw, checkout the underwater pictures from the race:
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0808/oly.phelps.sequence/content.5.html

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