Dead Heat

Filing under Interesting, Really Rather.

After the three way tie for second between Michael Phelps, Chad Le Clos and László Cseh in the 100m butterfly, you might wonder why the swimming authorities don’t work to thousandths rather than hundredths of a second to separate these athletes.


Well, the simple answer is: they can’t.

For the record:

In a 50 meter Olympic pool, at the current men’s world record 50m pace, a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel.

And while that might not seem like a lot (because it isn’t), we are talking about the best swimmers in the world, at the most important swimming event in the world, so these tiny margins count for a lot.

The trouble is, while our swimmers are pushing boundaries all over the place, our pool builders haven’t quite attained the same sort of levels.

FINA pool dimension regulations allow a tolerance of 3 centimeters in each lane, more than ten times that amount. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim.

I’ve been doing some rudimentary calculations, and that potential 3cm variation amounts to 12.5523012552 thousandths of a second. That’s 1.25523012552 hundredths of a second. And that explains why timing to thousandths of a second wouldn’t actually be fair. But it’s not like we can do anything about it:

Attempting to construct a concrete pool to any tighter a tolerance is nearly impossible; the effective length of a pool can change depending on the ambient temperature, the water temperature, and even whether or not there are people in the pool itself.

Of course, there are some sports that do time to thousandths of a second – like track cycling and bobsleigh – but the important difference here is that all the athletes compete on the same track. No danger there of Lane 4 being 3cm shorter than Lane 5 (or whatever). If the track isn’t quite the correct length, well, there’s no advantage for any one athlete: it’s the same for everyone.

One anomaly here: speed skating: Yes, they use the same track, but they’re so backward in using a starting pistol to begin races that some competitors definitely start at a disadvantage…

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