Did Sydney Blocks Rob
Mo Greene Of Olympic Record?
Most people are content
to either watch a track meet or read about it in the paper and then
accept the results at face value. Not Sweden's A. Lennart Julin.
One of the sharpest and
most inquisitive minds ever to grace the sport, Julin analyzed the Olympic
men's 100 final and came to the startling conclusion that if different
starting blocks has been used in Sydney, Maurice Greene would have broken
Donovan Bailey's Olympic Record of 9.84 and finished very close to his
own WorldRecord of 9.79.
In other words, his 9.87--already
a spectacular time considering the light headwind--was more like a 9.82.
by Lennart Julin
Most expert observers in
Sydney considered in view of weather conditions Maurice
Greene's 9.87 in the Olympic final as one of the finest 100m-performances
ever. Especially his impressive winning margin over the rest of the
world's fastest humans highlighted the exceptional quality.
And still those experts
then did not weigh in that the starting procedure used in Sydney
added some five hundredths to Greene's time as compared to what it would
have been if the start had been carried out as e.g. in the 1999 World
Championships (where he ran 9.80 in much, much sprint friendlier weather)!
Yes, you've just read that
the starting procedure was slowing the Sydney 100m-times by approximately
half a tenth!
This statement appears almost
unbelievable in an era where we through the media are regularily fed
claims (mostly unfounded ...) by manufacturers to have developed new
tracks, shoes or uniforms that would shave the occasional hundredth
off sprint times. How could it then be that much more time is allowed
to be lost through the starting procedure at the most important meet
of the quadrennium?
The answer: "The mechanics"
of the sprint start the most common occurance at all track meets
is paradoxically still today the most unknown and misunderstood
factor within our sport. And this not only to the general public and
the media but also to athletes, coaches, officials and yes -
even Starters! (To sort out all the abundant misconceptions would probably
be the subject of a book rather than an article. )
Very few seem e.g. to be
aware of the fact that the "reaction" times now issued at every major
meet actually NOT at all are direct measurements of the human reactions.
Rather the times registered are either
the sum of the "true" human
reaction time (R) and the time (D) it takes for the start stimuli (the
"bang" sound) to reach the ears of the athlete, or
the "guessing time" (G),
when the athlete rather than waiting to hear the "bang" tries to anticipate
the firing of the gun.
If we focus on the a) alternative
the theoretical ideal of course is that D = 0.00. But in the real world
that is not achievable. At the normal meet with the Starter using a
normal gun D is determined by the distance between the Starter and the
athlete. As the speed of sound in air is approximately 330 metres per
second every 3.3 metres (11 feet) of distance between gun and athlete
means a delay of the stimuli of one hundredth (0.01).
In a typical 100m-scenario,
when the Starter is approximately 10 metres from the runner in lane
1, D = 0.03. It should also be noted that in the same race D = 0.05-0.06
for the runner in lane 8 who is some 8 metres further away from the
Starter and his gun. (The lane dependance of D of course becomes really
significant in staggered starts. In the 200m the difference between
lane 1 and 8 corresponds to 0.07, and in the 400m to 0.14!)
But isn't that problem taken
care of by the use of individual loudspeakers behind the blocks of every
lane? This seems to be a doctrine almost universally subscribed to and
even manifestated in the IAAF Handbook (Rule 128.2 Note). However, it
is a total misconception!
What the loudspeakers relay
to the athletes is just the Starter's verbal commands, not the
"bang". That sound still travels through the air from the gun to the
ears of the athletes. And it even has to be like this! Because
if the "bang" would be coming through both loudspeakers and air the
athletes would be experience two distinct shots, which would
then be interpreted as a starting "bang" followed by a recall!!
But there is one obvious
solution to this problem: To have the "bang" only via the loudspeakers,
i.e. to use a "silent gun". A silent gun is a "gun" that doesn't fire
a conventional shot but one that when the trigger is pulled sends not
only a starting impulse to the electronic clock of the timing device
but also an impulse that manifestates itself as a distinct "bang" sound
coming out of the individual loudspeakers in each lane.
With such a system not only
is D the same for all runners regardless of lane draw but it is also
independent of the position chosen by the Starter. Actually D is reduced
to an absolute minimum as the setup is equivalent to having the Starter
standing right behind the blocks of each and every runner!
Sounds quite convincing
when you read it like this, doesn't it? But isn't it just a beautiful
theory made from a comfortable position behind a desk far removed from
the athletics arena? Would it work out like this in the real world of
competition? Well, actually the theories have over the last half decade
been successfully field tested on the very highest level of competition
Because after performing
an analysis like the one above the organisers of the 1995 World Championships
decided to request to achieve maximum fairness to the athletes
- a "silent gun" type of starting system for their meet. The request
was granted and since then "silent gun" starting has been used at all
following World Championships, outdoors, indoors as well as juniors!
And it has indeed worked precisely as intended!
This knowledge makes it
even more astounding that "silent gun" starting was not used
in either the 1996 or the 2000 Olympics! And as the figures below, where
the men's 100m in Seville 1999 and Sydney 2000 are compared, prove:
The choice of starting system really makes difference for the
"reaction times" recorded! A difference in this case of as stated
above approximately 0.05!
Table 1 presents the distribution
of reaction times in Seville and Sydney. For each meet not only the
totals are presented but also the numbers broken down into 1st round
(including some very inexperienced runners that might "blur" the picture)
and 2nd round and onwards (only experienced runners). For each column
the median (i.e. not the average which could be distorted
by an occasional odd registration - but the "middle" value) has been
You don't have to be an
experienced statistician to see the enormous discrepancies between the
two meets in Table 1. E.g. looking at "2nd round and onwards" only 3
out of 61 (4.9%) in Seville exceeded 0.18 while it was 39 out of 65
(60.0%) in Sydney! And at the other end of the spectrum: 40 out of 61
(65.6%) in Seville were under 0.16 while it was only 18 out of 65 (27.7%)
The medians tells the same
story: The athletes in Sydney were at a disadvantage of approximately
0.05 timewise compared to those running in Seville, which to a large
extent where the same individuals! One of those running at both
meets were Maurice Greene which brings us back to the original assertion.
In the final in Seville
Greene's reaction time was 0.132, in Sydney it was 0.197. Some observers
have unfairly interpreted this as Mo "missing the start" in Sydney.
Actually rather than being the fault of the athlete it was the inevitable
consequence of not using a silent gun starting system in Sydney, enhanced
by the Olympic Starter chosing to position himself extremely far away
(from the TV it could be estimated that he was perhaps 20 metres from
the nearest runner)! Something that resulted in an exceptionally high
D (as in delay) value!
Actually the "non-silent-gun
and Starter-very-far-away" setup in Sydney had another very serious
disadvantage from the fairness perspective. The numbers in Table 1 not
only show that the "reaction" times are considerably slower in Sydney
but also that they are not as tightly bunched as in Seville. In Seville
(looking at "2nd round and onwards") 54 out of 61 (88.5%) were crammed
at 0.12-0.17 while in Sydney you needed a 50% wider time spectrum (0.14-0.22)
to get a similar share.
Translated into reality
these numbers tells us that the starts in Sydney were not as tight and
even as those in Seville, rather they were quite ragged. One partial
explanation was that the Starter actually was too far away to be able
to really ascertain that all runners were motionless in the Set position
before he fired the gun. There were lots of twitches and other movements
that got by without notice.
However, the main explanation
to the ragged starts was that several athletes quickly realised that
it would be worthwile to "guess" rather than to patiently wait for the
sound of the gun. With a successful "guess" you could eliminate the
D disadvantage without getting punished with a formally illegal "reaction"
Actually the limit of the
"acceptable" reaction times given by the rules as 0.100
of course ought to be adjusted according to the D value of the meet.
If it is 0.100 with a silent gun starting system it should have been
at least 0.150 with the starting system used in Sydney. I.e. all registered
times under 0.150 in Sydney could not have been achieved by a runner
reacting to the "bang", but are rather illustrations of what above was
characterised as the type b) "reaction times" (guesses).
One good example was given
in Sydney by Ato Boldon in the final. Starting in lane 8 which
means that he was furthest away from the Starter he got away
after 0.136. A good but not exceptional reaction time in a "silent gun"
setting, but an in Sydney unattainable reacting-to-the-gun time. It
could be equated to 0.05-0.07 in a Seville setup.
That the unevenness in the
Sydney starting not only affected the inter-athlete relations but also
the athletes as individuals could be seen from Table 2 below. In that
table the reaction times registered through all the four rounds of competition
are listed for all finalists.
Before commenting on the
numbers in Table 2 it is important to stress that what we are talking
about are times measured in thousandths of a second. When we
see a "spread" of 31 that might appear sizeable but actually it means
a mere 0.031 second!
In Seville the maximum spread
was 41 and the minimum 9, in Sydney the minimum was 24 and that was
the only value not exceeding the maximum in Seville! The effects
are very clearly illustratred by Obadele Thompson:
* In Seville he was remarkably
consistent with all four reactions times crammed into less than a hundredth
despite starting in lanes 2, 6, 4 and 1.* In Sydney he had a spread
of 52 despite running his four races in lanes 2, 3, 4 and 4!
So not only does a "silent
gun" system save a significant number of hundredths (in Atlanta 1996
when the Starter was not so far away as in Sydney the loss was still
2-3 hundredths, i.e. Bailey's 9.84 would have been a 9.81/9.82 with
a "silent gun" setup) it actually also increases the fairness for the
athletes within the given race. Because the runners can confidently
concentrate on just reacting without harbouring ny nagging feelings
that they might be at a significant disadvantage to an opponent trying
to guess the gun.
And if runners really concentrate
on reacting such consistency as the one demonstrated by Thompson in
Seville is really nothing that exceptional. Other examples from Seville:
In the women´s 100m Hurdles Glory Alozie had 162/158/154/155 (spread
= 8) and Ludmila Engquist 137/136/135/132 (spread = 5) and in the men´s
110m Hurdles Colin Jackson 115/117/110/116 (spread = 7).
Furthermore the reacting
ability doesn't vary that much between individuals either, as could
be seen from the Seville numbers in Table 1 above. It is obviously almost
completely determined by how the human species is wired. The average
male sprinter hits about 0.13/0.14 (the average woman sprinter being
1-2 hundredths slower) with Jackson being the very best with his consistency
around and just below 0.12.
No human being has ever
showed the ability to consistently hit 0.10's, not even in a silent
gun setting. That is the reason that the limit for the system is set
at 0.100. However, that should not be interpreted as it unfortunately
has been by most persons in the sport as that a 0.101 (e.g. Surin
in Seville semi) is a correct start. Rather that number is also unattainable
for a reacting human being.
We must realise that the
technical device is there only for throwing out all undisputable
false starts, and that the border line cases still have to be handled
by an astute Starter. And it will stay like this also in the future
because it is impossible to pinpoint the minimum human reaction time
down to the thousandths. Any automatic system therefore has to have
a limit that incorporates a sufficient safety margin.
By using a silent gun starting
system the safety margin is minimized (which means that it is very hard
to be a successful guesser because the "window" is just a couple of
hundredths wide), by using a "live gun" starting system the chances
for the guesser are multiplied at the same time putting the truly good
"reactor" who patiently waits for experiencing the sound of the gun
at a disadvantage.
Note: The phrase
"silent gun" was coined by the organisers of the 1995 World Championships.
It was adopted by the Seiko company providing the equipment for the
competition. However, any other timing company could although
none has done so far of course develop similar systems and then
use a name of their own for the device.
Distribution of Seville & Sydney 100m reaction times
Click here for a graphic representation of distribution
in rounds 2, 3 & 4.
Note that Sydney reaction times are shifted to the right (slower on
X = "Reaction" time
A = Sydney 1st round (median=0.197s)
B = Sydney 2nd round onwards (median=0.184s)
C = Sydney all rounds (median=0.189)
D = Seville 1st round (median=0.146s)
E = Seville 2nd round onwards (median=0.143s)
F = Seville all rounds (median=0.143s)
X A B C D E F
0.10 - - - 1 2 3
0.11 - - - 2 2 4
0.12 - - - 12 8 20
0.13 1 3 4 12 16 28
0.14 4 9 13 16 12 28
0.15 9 6 15 5 7 12
0.16 12 6 18 6 5 11
0.17 10 2 12 6 6 12
0.18 5 15 20 2 1 3
0.19 10 7 17 2 - 2
0.20 7 1 8 1 - 1
0.21 9 5 14 1 - 1
0.22 7 6 13 - 2 2
0.23 7 3 10 - - -
0.24 7 1 8 2 - 2
0.25 5 1 6 - - -
0.26+ 4 0 4 5 - 5
TABLE 2: Reaction times in each round for Seville & Sydney 100m
Seville '99 Sydney '00
h q s f spread h q s f spread
M Greene 122 138 163 132 41 195 182 227 197 45
B Surin 127 135 101 127 34 198 130 151
D Chambers 149 116 124 140 33 171 150 164 174 24
O Thompson 146 152 143 145 9 239 187 189 216 52
T Harden 149 155 147 136 19
T Montgomery 167 145 158 136 31
J Gardener 164 127 137 142 37 188 177
K S-Thompson 149 172 169 173 24
A Boldon 170 155 212 136 76
J Drummond 198 145 137 147 61
D Campbell 148 133 143 224 229 161 193 63
K Collins 243 240 222 184 210 56
A Zakari 317 193 236 180 137
median 32 56.5
Graphic representation of distribution in rounds
2, 3 & 4
2001-2002, Track & Field News