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How Does Tolerance Influence Olympic Swimming Results?

Olympic swimming is notorious for awarding ties. However, for the first time in history, in the 2016 Rio Olympics, three Olympians were awarded silver medals. 

Pools were not designed to the millimeter tolerances required to measure thousandths of a second. As a result, Olympic swimming is timed only in hundredths of a second. This method of timing athletes’ performance greatly influences the results of the sport, often resulting in ties.

Ties in Olympic Swimming Events

The first known tie in Olympic swimming was recorded in the 1984 Olympics. It was in the Women’s 100-meter freestyle. Both Netherlands and American swimmers timed in at 55.92 seconds. Ties followed them in 1988, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympics.

The 2016 Olympics saw the most ties in the history of the Olympic Swimming competition – a three-way tie for silver in the 100-meter Butterfly competition. This was the first time a three-way tie was recorded in Olympic history. As a result, Michael Phelps, Chad Le Clos, and Laszo Cseh took home a silver medal.

The Rio Olympics also saw a two-way tie for Gold in the Women’s 100-meter freestyle and another two-way tie for Bronze in the Women’s 100-meter backstroke events. (Source: Olympics)

Factors That Causes Ties

Fédération Internationale de natation (FINA), also known as the International Swimming Federation, considered all possible external factors that influence the swimmers’ timing during the events.

The FINA pool dimension specifications allow for a rather considerable tolerance of 3cm per lane. This tolerance is due to the overall engineering of the standard 50 meter Olympic Pool. Consideration of the expansion and contraction of the cement used for the pool is considered. The temperature of the water is also considered. Even the paint used for the swimming pool plays a role. (Source: Born to Engineer)

FINA recognizes that though the Olympic committee built the pools following specific standards and measurements, there still could be unforeseen millimeter structural changes during the event. These factors, as mentioned above, do not conform to any bar, hence could not be accounted for precisely.

FINA also considers that the eight swimming lanes all use 16 separate touchpads for both start and end. FINA considered the time information received from these touchpads and transmitted to the database could not be 100% accurate. (Source: WRAL Sports Fan)

How Swimming Events Are Timed

Olympic Swimming relies on the timing of only a hundredth of a second, despite technological advancements. Nowadays, it is possible to time athletes down to one-millionth of a second, called a microsecond. To give you an idea of what a microsecond is, it takes 300-400 microseconds for an eye to blink.  

Since slight variations to the pool should be considered, FINA determined that this timing measurement is fair for this specific sport.

Events are timed using different tools and systems. As mentioned earlier, there are 16 different touchpads in the eight swimming lanes that measure the dive and end time of the swim. In addition, cameras mounted between swimming lanes are also utilized. These cameras are designed to capture 0.01-second resolutions, in sync with FINA’s prescribed hundredth of a second measure.

Omega has maintained its presence in the Olympic games as the official partner and timekeeper. (Source: New York Times)

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