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During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, Michael Phelps won his 7th gold medal of that Olympics by defeating Milorad Čavić by 0.01 seconds. However, there was controversy that Čavić finished first, but did not apply enough pressure to trigger the sensor before Phelps slammed it with his finish. The finish is unintelligible with the naked eye, even with super slow-motion video analysis.

Before modern technology, how did timekeeping officials keep time? How did they determine who finished first when it was a very close finish?

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    growing up, we used individual timers for each swimmer when the electronic scoring system could not be used (such as in the case of 25m races). – wax eagle Jun 22 '12 at 17:38
  • @waxeagle Gotcha. What would happen if there were very close finishes? – user527 Jun 22 '12 at 18:13
  • compare stopwatches. I don't remember many disputes, but basically each racer's time was kept individually and at the end of the race the stop watches were compared if it was not obvious who had won. – wax eagle Jun 22 '12 at 18:15
  • Okay. It makes you wonder how it was done in olympic competition. – user527 Jun 22 '12 at 18:38
  • In addition to having timers for each swimmer, for big meets we'd often have three timers per swimmer, and either average them or use the middle time. At that level if there was a tie there wasn't much harm in giving both swimmers the same color ribbon. – KeithS Jun 22 '12 at 19:16
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NOTE: As discovered in the 1896 Olympic games, keeping time by hand introduced a higher margin of (human) error, as one may expect. This introduced a challenge for the IOC. (SOURCE)

In the 1920, 1924, and 1928 Olympic games, the Swiss-based company Heuer (known today as TAG Heuer) was the official timekeeper. Times had been measured to the nearest 1/5th of a second and official times were only provided for winners.

Omega has been the official timekeeper of the Olympics since the 1932 Summer Olympic games. OMEGA's calibre 1130 stopwatches were used, were accurate to the nearest 1/10th of a second, and had the ability to measure split-times. They were the first company to provide "observatory precision-rating certificates" for timekeeping in all events.

Also according to Omega's excerpt, many of the judges‘ decisions were shrouded in controversy at the '32 Olympic Games. The same time was recorded for the winner and runner-up in five different races. Most notably, the 100 meters between Thomas Edward “Eddie“ Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe.

The timekeepers‘ hand-held stopwatches had recorded three times of 10.3 seconds for Metcalfe and two times of 10.3 and one of 10.4 seconds for Tolan. Even so, Tolan was declared the winner.

However, Tolan's victory was confirmed by video, and introduced a rule we're all familiar with, in bold below.

Gustavus T. Kirby, Chairman of the Jury and inventor of the “Chronocinema“, a camera which filmed the end of races and was used to record times to the nearest 1/100th of a second, stated categorically after examining the film: “The seven judges and myself have viewed the film of the finish several times. We can state that Tolan won by exactly five hundredths of a second. Both competitors reached the finishing tape at exactly the same moment, but the rules specify that the race is finished only when the athlete‘s torso has completely crossed the finishing line marked on the ground. Tolan crossed before Metcalfe.“ This rule, which was often interpreted in different ways, was changed in 1933. Since then, the winner has been the first person to cross the line with any part of his or her torso. Kirby‘s camera was used on an experimental basis and was only consulted in exceptional cases because it took too long to develop the films.

Summary: Stopwatches had a margin of error, but triangulation (comparing three stopwatches for one competitor) and the "experimental" use of video confirmed a competitor's victory/defeat. However, even with today's technology, Phelps's victory over Čavić was too close to call.

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This was handled the same way small local swim meets are handled these days: stopwatches. Okay, they may not always have been digital, but having two or three timekeepers per lane allows you to tinge each competitor and remove some of the human error.

When it was a really close finish they would have to make a call - who looked like they hit first?

  • +1 I see. Judges had more of a role back then to declare a winner in close races. – user527 Jun 23 '12 at 16:28
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When I used to swim there was also a place judge and ties were decided by him. In track during the sprints each lane has more than one timer if electronic timing isn't used. For distance events there are usually two timers timing everyone. If there is a tie the head judge decides.

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