A Nick of Time

At the Olympics, much can hinge on a fraction of a second.

ATHENS OLYMPICS: Measuring the margin of victory

August 16, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

You might consider it perfect timing: That one one-hundredth of a second in the 1984 Summer Olympics that changed the life of American swimmer Nancy Hogshead -- and the course of sports history.

It happened in the women's 100-meter freestyle -- the first event on the first day of competition. These Games brought a long-awaited spectacle to the nation and the pinnacle of Hogshead's swimming career. An international champ at the age of 14, the young athlete had qualified for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, only to have her dreams dashed by the American boycott.

Hogshead was now 22, a senior at Duke University who hoped to go to law school. This last "meet" would be her swan song. In this first event, she faced stiff competition that included her 16-year-old teammate, Carrie Steinseifer.

The starter sounded. Less than a minute after Hogshead dove into the pool, she won a place in swimming history.

But which place?

Now an attorney, author and motivational speaker, the swimmer (now Nancy Hogshead-Makar) recalls just staring at the scoreboard. There was her name, listed second, with a time of 55.92 seconds.

Carrie Steinseifer was listed first. Her time was also 55.92.

"I was very confused," Hogshead-Makar recalls. "What spectators don't realize is that boards are wrong all the time. You have to wait to hear them say, "The board is official."

When those words finally came, they also announced an Olympic first: Hogshead and Steinseifer would each receive a gold medal. It was the first official tie ever recorded at the Games.

Hogshead went on to win two more golds and a silver in Los Angeles -- more medals than any other swimmer that year. You could chalk it up to the Olympic formula: Talent, sacrifice, hard work, determination and timing -- especially timing.

One hundredth of a second more on her first race would have brought silver. One hundredth less would have brought her the gold alone, but also diminished her spot in sports legend.

To imagine such a tiny unit of time, try this:

It's 10 times faster than the blink of an eye -- and 10 times slower than the fastest film exposure time in a normal camera.

One one-hundredth of a second is the time it takes for lightning to strike.

It's the time it takes to travel not quite a foot when you're driving at 65 miles an hour.

And it's what swimmer Michael Phelps hoped to shave off his world-record 400 meter individual medley time (4:08:41) this past weekend in Athens. In fact, he reduced his time by 15 hundredths of a second to win the gold with 4:08:26, the fifth world record he has set in that event.

These days, it's normal for elite athletes to talk about "tenths" and "hundredths" of seconds. The quest for records that are more precise and less subject to human error has even produced sports timing systems that record to the thousandths of a second.

Although track events are often measured that minutely, that level of precision has been used only once in Olympic swimming. And it was almost instantly regretted.

The event was the 400 meter individual medley at the Munich Games in 1972. American Tim McKee and Gunnar Larsson of Sweden tied for first place with a time of 4:31:98. For eight very long minutes, the scoreboard listed both men as sharing a first-place time. Then officials consulted the computer tape from the timing machine and declared Larsson the winner -- by two thousandths of a second.

McKee was awarded the silver.

Soon after this controversial decision, international swimming officials decided to time races only to the hundredth of a second, agreeing that there were too many other variables that can affect swimmers' time.

Perhaps the biggest is distance.

"When you watch the race, the last thing on your mind is that lane 4 is longer than lane 5," says Bob Clauson of Colorado Timing Systems, a sports-timing company that provides the bulk of aquatics-timing equipment used in the United States.

"We take it for granted that the swimmers are all swimming the same length in the race, but they're not. The very best construction specs will say, `This pool is 50 meters plus or minus one quarter of an inch' .... Our ability to build things isn't nearly as good as our ability to time them."

In longer races, those differences can add up. Over the course of a 1,500-meter event -- 30 lengths of the pool -- a quarter of an inch difference could add up to 7 1/2 inches, he says.

Clauson says officials could get more accurate results by factoring in the exact length of each individual's swimming lane, a measurement possible with laser technology.

But such precision could also lead to a public-relations disaster: Employing that technology, the first swimmer to finish the race might not be the actual winner.

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