Thursday, June 3, 2010

The bizarre world of road race timing

Having a marathoner in the family one is exposed to the various rules and regulations associated with competitive running. Most make some degree of sense, but one particular rule is so patently stupid as to beggar the imagination.

According to the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) Road Race Handbook, “The official time shall be the time elapsed between the firing of the starting gun and the athlete reaching the finish line. However, the time elapsed between an athlete crossing the start line and the finish line can be made known to him, but will not be considered an official time.”

So what this means is that race results are not actually based on the time a runner takes to go from the start to the finish line over a measured distance.

In a 100-yard dash, the runners all line up right on the start line, so it matters not, but in a large race, it’s not uncommon for competitors to be lined up 200 or 300 yards behind the start line. Once the gun fires, it can take those runners a couple of minutes to get to the start line therefore doubly penalizing them, first for having to “run” a longer distance, but also having to do that extra distance at a much slower pace as the runners in front get under way.

This can result in a situation where a runner who was actually faster over the measured distance places lower in the standings than a runner who was slower over the measured distance but was closer to the start line when the gun sounded. And that’s not fair, or accurate.

Runners today are all equipped with transponder chips to precisely determine when they cross the start and finish lines, thus giving a very precise elapsed time required to cover the measured distance. That should be the only “official time” as it’s the only accurate measurement of how fast the runner covered the actual distance.

It’s time for the various organizing bodies to move out of the 19th century and change this rule.

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