Hugh Pickens "For decades sports-event organizers have placed speakers behind athletes to convey the sound of an actual pistol but they found that even though the noise came through the speakers all at once, athletes continued to wait for the 'real' sound, ignoring the sounds that came through the speakers ever-so-slightly slowing down the farthest athlete from the gun. Now Rebecca Rosen writes that when the Olympic runners take to their positions on the track later this week, they'll crouch on the ground, ears pricked, and wait for the starting beep played by a 'pistol' that's not a pistol at all, but something more akin to an electronic instrument with only one key. The pistol itself is silent."
"A conversation with sprinter Michael Johnson at the Sydney Olympics caused Peter Hürzeler of OMEGA Timing to realize that even with speakers, the speed of sound was still slowing down the farthest athletes. Johnson's reaction time, Hurzeler said, 'was 440 thousandths of a second. Normally athletes leave between 130 and 140 thousandths of a second. ... I asked him, why did you have such a bad starting time?' Turned out, Johnson was in the ninth position, and the sound of the gun was reaching him too slowly.
Read on for a bit more about the difficulties of timing people with superhuman reaction times.
"In addition after a four year developmental process, a new false start detection system is being introduced this year that will abandon movement in exchange for 'measurement' of pound-force against the back block to determine sprinters reaction times. 'We are measuring the time between the starting gun and when the athlete is moving because to leave the starting block they had to push against and this power is very high' says Hurzeler. 'We did a test last year with Asafa Powell and he was pushing 240 kilograms (529 lbs.) [so] as soon as he gives the time to push against the starting block, it means he will like to leave and we are measuring this in thousandths of seconds and if somebody is leaving before one hundredth thousandth of second, it's automatically a recall, it's a false start.' In track every event is timed to 1/10,000th of a second, and Omega takes 2,000 pictures per second from right before the start of a race to its finish, as backup.
"New touch pads, starting blocks, and timers have also been introduced for swimming."