Tuesday 12 December 2017

Inside the world of Olympic timing: ‘We could measure in millionths of seconds but that wouldn’t be fair’

Michael Phelps smiles during training
Michael Phelps smiles during training

Alan Baldwin

IN THE split-second world of Olympic swimming, where gold medals are won or lost by a fingertip, Peter Huerzeler is the man who knows.

He is the Omega man -- the former company head whose timing technology puts him in a position to know exactly who is quickest in the pool even when two swimmers hit the wall seemingly simultaneously.

He is also the man who, in the finest Swiss tradition, is sworn to secrecy and neutrality.

Olympic swimming results are given officially in hundredths of a second, even if Omega can time an athlete precisely to the 1/10,000th and has the ultimate computing power to do so to a millionth of a second.

In the event of identical timings and a shared gold medal, Mr Huerzeler will know which of the two was first of equals.

He will never divulge the information, however. To do so, said the veteran preparing to spend his 16th Olympics in the timing and results room, would simply not be fair on anyone.

"We had in the European championships a lot of discussions about the ties," he explained poolside today as Olympic hopefuls went through their training routines in the lanes behind him.

Mr Huerzeler said Omega had done more detailed analysis of those ties with their data and discovered that, timed to 1/1,000th of a second, only one remained. At 1/10,000th there were none.

It would therefore be possible to declare an absolute winner, but that would fail to take into account other factors.

"They are talking about measuring the thousandths again but that is not correct," said Mr Huerzeler. "One thousandth of a second is 1.7 millimetres.

"And who gives me the guarantee that each lane in the construction of a pool is precise to the millimetre? The tolerances in the pool are in centimetres...the thousandth is only feasible if everybody is swimming in the same line."

Olympic timings were once given in thousandths but the practice changed after 1972 when that year's 400m individual medley gold went to Sweden's Gunnar Larsson by two thousandths over American Alexander McKee after both tied at 4:31.98.

Since then there have been shared golds. In the 50m freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Games, Americans Gary Hall Jr and Anthony Ervin tied in 21.98 seconds.

In the women's 100m free, Americans Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer dead-heated in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

At the Shanghai world championships last year, French team mates Camille Lacourt and Jeremy Stravius shared men's 100m backstroke gold while Aliaksandra Herasimenia of Belarus and Jeanette Ottesen of Denmark tied in the women's 100m free.

"Every journalist came and asked me 'But who was the winner?'. We never gave something to them because it is unfair against the swimmers," said Mr Huerzeler.

The timing in London also incorporates, for the first time at a Games, a poolside light system that shows the crowd immediately who were the first three finishers.

One thing that Mr Huerzeler is happy to say is that American Michael Phelps, the greatest of Olympians and someone he has known for years, will be back on the gold standard in London.

He is confident about that because he feels Phelps has finally listened to his advice after years of ignoring it.

Mr Huerzeler has tired of telling Phelps, winner of an unprecedented eight golds in Beijing and record 14 in his Olympic career, to touch the timing pads before looking away to the giant screen to see where the rest ended up.

Such has been Phelps's domination that he has got away with it but that all changed at the recent U.S. trials in Nebraska when, maybe for the first time in his life, his concentration was total to the end.

It had to be, because rival Ryan Lochte was such a threat.

"Before he was always ahead. Today if it's close he has no time to watch the scoreboard...maybe in the heats he will do it. But I was very proud. I told him after the press conference "finally!"," said Mr Huerzeler.

"To win the same amount of medals is not possible. But I think he will win a minimum four golds (in London)."

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