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Are Track Measurements and Records Accurate?

Anybody who knows me knows I'm a track and field geek (used to compete a lot more, but haven't since my back surgery). So when I came across this story on Slate, I was certainly intrigued.

The Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell set a new world record for the 100-meter dash on June 14, with a time of 9.77 seconds. The previous record, set by American Tim Montgomery, was 9.78 seconds -- just one-hundredth of a second slower. How accurate are the devices used to time these events?

They can record to the ten-thousandth of a second, although that level of precision is not commonly used. That's because every track (and every lane) differs in length by a minuscule amount, so two runners who race at exactly the same speed might cross the finish line with times that differ by a tiny fraction of a second. In the 1972 Olympics, for example, two swimmers finished a 400-meter race within two-thousandths of a second -- or a few millimeters -- of each other. As it turned out, each lane of the swimming pool had been constructed to a precision of just 10 millimeters, so there was no way to determine the winner.

Luckily I raced longer distances where a centimeter ain't going to matter worth a damn, but I can see this being a problem in shorter events.

Posted by Jake on 06/29/05 @ 05:14 PM
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