An Engineer in Wonderland – Stopwatch dexterity

I went on a course this weekend to allow me to help out at athletics events as a bottom rung official.

stopwatch.jpgI went on a course this weekend to allow me to help out at athletics events as a bottom rung official.

The first thing I learned was that there is so much more to the job than I thought there would be, so hats off to anyone who gives up their time, usually for free, to do this stuff.

The second thing I learned was that everyone who had already had a go at officiating has stories of school events where angry parents have marched up to them to either argue about, or even corrupt, a judgement.

But what most amazed me is the timing accuracy that is possible with a stopwatch.

For the uninitiated – including me, before yesterday afternoon – manual timing involves a stack of judges, one for each position in the race.

The lowest judge times the first finisher, the one sitting behind and slightly above, looking over the head of the first, times the second finisher, and so on.

Events with electronic timing still mostly also have the manual version as a back-up and to allow timekeepers to stay sharp.

It turns out, that the best amateur judges are generally within 0.01s of the electronic timing, and even local officials achieve errors of 0.04 or below. 

To be on the safe side, manual times are only ever quoted to the next tenth of a second.

Excellent, aren’t humans wonderful.

For interest –
Inexperienced timekeepers and soon-to-be-angry parents tend to under measure time because their reaction time is included in at the start – as they watch for the flash and smoke of the gun – but not included at the end because they visually track the finisher and hit the button on the finish line.

The timekeeper’s skill is in delaying the finish line press just the right amount to compensate for reaction time at the beginning.

Measuring throwing events is equally complicated, particularly for the person who has to spot where a discus has landed.

For me, I shall probably offer to rake the long jump sand pit because, although even this is more complicated than it might at first seem, at least all the difficult stuff is over before the athlete begins their run-up.


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  1. That is indeed interesting.
    I am constantly amazed at the projects people are prepared to take upon themselves.
    Hats off to all of them.
    I think I will stick to the sand pit rake.

  2. Perhaps it might be interesting:
    Using Xnote for athletic short lane events

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