Every four years, we watch. We marvel at badminton and wonder about the modern decathlon. With more than 300 gold medals awarded across 37 disciplines, our lives are suddenly much less productive. To aid in your immersion, we continue with our daily edition of "know your Olympic sport," by answering some and posing some questions about the science of Michael Phelps (and swimming).
All In The Timing
Michael Phelps has the Swiss to thank for what was his seventh of eight gold medals. To spectators and swimmers alike, it appeared that Phelps fell just short of catching Serbian Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly. Even Phelps's mother held up two fingers, thinking her son had finished second. But technology provided by the notoriously neutral Swiss (a coincidence, we're sure), showed that the impressively long fingers of Phelps had touched the pool wall 0.01 seconds before the Serb -- the smallest time increment possible in swimming.
For the past 23 Olympics, Omega has served as the aforementioned timekeeper for the games. Omega's traditional expertise in watchmaking has been superseded by more sophisticated technology, exemplified by the electronic touchpad used for recording swimming finishes. Measuring three feet high, nearly eight feet wide and less than half an inch thick, the pad was introduced in Mexico City in 1968 in response to a controversial decision in 1960. Prior to that point, three timekeepers armed with stopwatches were assigned to each lane. Two-thirds of the pad is submerged in water, with a separate pad in each lane. The system reacts to the slightest touch, but won't trigger based on the water movement in the pool.
"The timing system says it all," said Phelps. "There hasn't been an error in that timing system that I've ever heard of. The only thing I can say is, I raced as hard as I could and swam my best, and the scoreboard said I got my hand on the wall first."
Cavic wasn't so sure.
"As we all know, technology isn't perfect. It's possible. Everything's possible. The hand is quicker than the eye. Too bad we didn't both finish at 50.58. I would have loved to share that gold medal."
The pads claim accuracy to 0.001 seconds, but they are only reported to 0.01. Omega notes that it's impossible for pools to ensure that individual lanes are each the exact same length, which is why times are rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a second. Ironically, the Serbians protested the initial result of the race, which was denied based on high-speed video footage considered conclusive. Forget the video; maybe a Serb should have taken a tape measure to that lane.
As a fellow swimmer it is easy to explain many of the issues brought up with Michael Phelps in the above article.
1. Michael Phelps did not wear a full body suit because the suits can restrict breathing and movement, and in the end it is all up to the swimmer about how comfortable they are.
2. The reason that Michael Phelps outouched Milorad Cavic is that when Cavic was gliding to the wall, he slowed as he was not kicking anymore. Michael Phelps took the extra stroke and touched with less resistance above the water, and therefore his arms were able to move faster and compensate for a poorly timed finish.
3. Measuring the lane would not matter because the differences are so insignificant that the result would be the same.
4. As for the gutter system, it does not make a big difference because the middle lanes have the same amount of waves, and all of the water leaves the pool when the swimmers swim past anyway.
Please do not pretend to tell how sports work if you are not a participant in them, or a very avid fan.
I have to agree with Mr Schaeps regarding the writer's lack of expertise and background. Aside from the obvious goofs noticeable to all swimmers and swim-PHANS, it appears Mr Schaeps did not even WATCH the Games. Proof?
"when the start gun is fired"
"react to the gun"
"to jump the gun"
"The starter's pistol"
"each swimmer hears the gun"
THERE IS -NO- GUN.
The PopSci folks are invited to write to me or Mr Schaeps for fact-checking next time a swim story comes around. Perhaps the Feb 20, 2009 meeting between FINA, swimsuit manufacturers, and even swim COACHES, to discuss the numerous questions and conflicting claims of suit technology and the swimming rules applicable to them.
Or wait until 2012.
Sometimes it's only a matter of instinct but timing is everything.