Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Not So Perfect Timing

A Boston Blickbild Exclusive

Saturday's women's downhill in Crans-Montana had a controversial result because of problems with the timing. We are not going to address the results, who should have been second or third, and the protests. We will leave that to the others. The regular timing for the Crans-Montana downhill seemed to have failed and the race organisers were forced to rely on the backup system to time the racers. How do World Cup timing systems work anyway? If the main system fails, what is the backup system?  We sent one of our intrepid reporters to Switzerland to talk to a representative from Longines, but nobody from Longines was willing to talk to us. However, we ran into Bob, our old friend and contact at the FIS. Let's find out what he has to say.

BB: Hi Bob. It's nice to see you again. 
Bob: It is always a pleasure to talk with the Blickbild. 
BB: The FIS does not actually handle race timing, but Longines does. Is that correct?
Bob: Yes. Longines has been handling World Cup race timing for many years. 
BB: Longines is a Swiss firm, right?
Bob: Yes. 
BB: Has Longines started making its timing equipment in China or Bangladesh?
Bob: No, it has always been made in Switzerland. 
BB: Maybe the FIS and Longines are trying to save money and decided to outsource the construction of the timing equipment. A few years ago the Austrians had the trophies for the Kitzbuehel races made in China. But they went back to having them made in Austria when the Gams embarrassingly fell off of one of them during the award ceremony.  But back to Crans-Montana and the timing. Maybe you can explain how timing systems work.
Bob: The timer is activated when the start gate opens. It is connected to the finish line and split timers by two sets of cables. One is the main cable and the other is a backup. Split and finish times are recorded when the racer breaks a beam. There are computers in a timing shack near the finish area that record all of the start, split, and finish times. 
BB: Is the beam that the racer breaks a laser beam?
Bob: No, it is an optical beam between two points. 
BB: So the racers don't have to worry about being burned or cut in two by a laser beam?
Bob: No. Think of it like an automatic door sensor. All of the sensors are connected to computers which record the times that the racer started, crossed the split points, and finished.
BB: To what degree are the times accurate?
Bob: They are accurate to 0.001 seconds.
BB: Can the timing be manipulated? For example, can the timing computers be programmed to go faster or slower than normal?
Bob: Why would someone want to make the timers go too fast or slow?
BB: Let's suppose that someone on the timing crew is tired of Mikaela Shiffrin or Marcel Hirscher winning all the time. One of the engineers on the timing crew could change the timing software so that the clock runs really fast when Mikaela is on course so that it looks like she took longer to make her run. 
Bob: I think that someone would get suspicious if the clock ran faster for Mikaela than for the other racers. 
BB: Maybe yes, maybe no. A lot of people were very suspicious about the timing in Crans-Montana. It seemed to benefit the Swiss racers.
Bob: What happened in Crans-Montana is that the primary system was not working so the backup system was used. 
BB: Perhaps you could explain to our readers how the backup system works.
Bob: There are two sets of cables running from the start to the finish area. When one does not work, we have the second. 
BB: Let's suppose that both sets of cables stop working. How would the race be timed?
Bob: We set up an emergency generator to supply power to the cables and computers. It is powered by a local boy pedalling a stationary bicycle. We don't want to pollute the air with a gasoline-powered generator. 
BB: That is very environmentally friendly. I'm sure that protection of the environment is an FIS priority, up there with athlete safety and TV ratings. But suppose the boy gets tired from pedalling the bike. Do you have more than one bike, or do you have a crew of local boys who alternate pedalling the bike?
Bob: There are a few boys who take turns pedalling. They switch during the TV breaks or any other time a race is interrupted. But we have not needed them in a long time. The timing systems normally work very well. 
BB: Are local girls also allowed to be bicycle power generators or just boys? 
Bob: I suppose a girl could do it. But it is traditional for boys to have this honour.
BB: Okay. Let's imagine that there was a big power failure, so there was no power for the timing cables.  In addition, the boys who ride the bike which powers the emergency generator are all sick. Would the race be cancelled due to lack of proper timing equipment?
Bob: No. We would then use hand timing.
BB: Explain how hand timing would be used in a World Cup race.
Bob: Members of the timing crew use stopwatches. They start the stopwatch when the starting gate opens and stop when the racer crosses the finish line.
BB: How can someone in the finish area see when the timers at the start house have started their stopwatches?
Bob: The monitors by the start and finish area communicate by radio or mobile phone. There are 3 monitors at each point, the primary time keeper and two backup time keepers. There are also time keepers at each split point. Their times are written down and averaged to get the racer's time.
BB: That sounds good so far. But what if our power failure also affected mobile phone service and radio waves and the monitors can't communicate with each other? A large solar flare or a Martian invasion could wipe out the whole power grid and cause such a scenario.
Bob: The odds of a Martian invasion are rather slim. But we have a backup plan. 
BB: Are you going to tell our readers or leave us all in suspense?
Bob: If the radios or phones don't work, the start house and finish area are all connected to each other by tin cans and string.
BB: So you are saying that professional race timing could come down to how loud someone can yell into a tin can?
Bob: Let's not go that far. We have the monitors at the start, split points, and finish line. When a racer passes each checkpoint, the monitor at each checkpoint contacts the timing shack via the tin cans.
BB:  What type of string conducts sound the best?
Bob: Longines has conducted extensive tests with different types of strings, yarn, and twine and found that worsted weight yarn is the best sound conductor. Longines uses only the finest worsted weight yarn for its backup system to ensure accurate communication and timing.
BB: Nothing but the best for the FIS.
Bob: That's right! Here is how the backup system works. When a racer starts, the monitor at the start house yells into his tin can that Racer Number 1, 2, 3, 17, etc. started. Someone in the timing shack records the time. When the racer passes the first split point, the main monitor there contacts the timing shack via his tin can. After the racer crosses the finish line, his or her time is calculated.
BB: Where are you getting all of the tin cans and yarn?
Bob: Part of the pre-race timekeeping preparation is a trip to a local recycling centre to get tin cans. Someone on the timing crew also goes to a local yarn shop. Another person is responsible for putting holes in the cans and installing the yarn. The timing crew is also responsible for connecting the tin cans at the start house and split points with the timing shack.
BB: Once all of the times are communicated to the timing shack, how is the final time figured?
Bob: There are ten people with slide rules who take all of the times and calculate the averages. The ten averages are then averaged to get the final time.
BB: Wait a minute! Where are you going to find ten people who still know how to use a slide rule?
Bob: If a slide rule was good enough for the NASA scientists and engineers who sent men to the moon, it certainly is good enough for Longines and the FIS. Part of timing crew training is learning how to use a slide rule.
BB: So the backup system for race timing boils down to some stopwatches, tin cans, yarn, and ten men with slide rules? (to himself) What could go wrong with that?
Bob: Yes and no. We have another backup system.
BB: An abacus?
Bob: How did you know?
BB: We at the Blickbild are not only intrepid, we are psychic. 
Bob: The timing crew has a 90-year-old Chinese man named Mr. Li who is a whiz with an abacus. He is our backup to the slide rules. We even have a third backup system if the tin cans, slide rules, and abacus fail--a Mayan calendar.
BB: What does a Mayan calendar have to do with calculating race times?
Bob: The ancient Mayans used it to calculate time. Remember, they did not have computers, Google, or YouTube tutorials to help them create their calendar. If the ancient Mayans could keep time with their calendar, so can a World Cup race timing crew. The timing crew has figured out a way to convert the symbols on the Mayan calendar to race times. There is a reason why the timing crew is well-paid.
BB: This is getting absurd, even by our low journalistic standards. You might as well have the timing crew use their fingers for calculating correct race times. 
Bob: What a great idea! I will pass it on to the people at Longines. The more backup timing systems that we can use when the main one fails, the more accurate the race timing will be.
BB: Just like in Crans-Montana last weekend. Well, it looks like we are out of time. I want to thank you for educating our readers about how World Cup race timing and backup systems work. Hopefully the FIS will not have to rely on the backup systems very often. And that concludes another Boston Blickbild exclusive interview. 

The Boston Blickbild. Our motto is: Our reporters don't have backups. They are one of a kind.

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Friday, January 11, 2019

Athlete Profile: Katharina Liensberger

A Boston Blickbild Exclusive

Katharina Liensberger is Austria's newest technical racing star. After coming close to the podium earlier this season, she earned her first podium finish in Flachau and became the Second Attendant to the Snow Space Princess. One of our confident correspondents of communication, better known as one of our intrepid reporters, was sent to Austria to talk to Katharina. Let's find out what she has to say.

BB: Congratulations on your third place finish in Flachau. 
Liensberger: Thank you. 
BB: How does it feel to be the Second Attendant to the Snow Space Princess?
Liensberger: I don't think that the Snow Space Princess has any attendants. I was simply the third place finisher. 
BB: Of course the Snow Space Princess has attendants. All princesses do. 
Liensberger: Maybe Petra Vlhova's trainers and service men were her attendants. But neither Mikaela Shiffrin nor I did any traditional attendant to a princess duties after the race. 
BB: I see...You are part of the new generation of Austrian ski racers who are making their mark in the World Cup. Do you feel pressure to live up to the legacy of the Austrian stars who came before you?
Liensberger: No. I simply go out and do my best. Of course I want to make my fellow Austrians proud, but I don't feel any pressure. It was a special thrill to place third in front of the Austrian crowd in Flachau.
BB: You are part of a group of not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 Katharinas who are all rising stars on the Austrian team. Is there any special reason why there are so many Katharinas?
Liensberger: Katharina is a popular name in Austria.
BB: So the Austrian Ski Federation did not put out a notice to all mothers with daughters named Katharina that there was a shortage of ski racers with that name on the national team and to have their girls report for compulsory ski lessons?
Liensberger: Ski lessons are mandatory for everyone in Austria, no matter what their names are.  I think that it is a coincidence that there are four Katharinas on the team. As I said before, it is a popular name.
BB: As far as you know, the Austrian federation does not tell parents, "This year we want only Annas for the team, next year we want Stephanies, and in two years we will only take Katharinas?"
Liensberger: No, the team picks the best skiers based on their race results, not their names.
BB: Let's talk about the other Katharinas on the team, namely Katharina Truppe, Katharina Huber, and Katharina Gallhuber. Are all four of you friends?
Liensberger: Yes. We are rivals on the race course but friends outside of racing and in training. We all support each other and are part of a great team. 
BB: Let's play a little game. Are you ready?
Liensberger: This is a rather strange interview. 
BB: Of course it is. We are the Blickbild and specialise in asking the questions that nobody else dares to ask. We also have the most intrepid reporters in the business. You on the other hand don't seem very intrepid because you are not interested in playing along with me. 
Liensberger: OK, I will play. 
BB: Out of the 4 Katharinas: yourself, and Katharinas Huber, Gallhuber, and Truppe, which one is not like the other three?
Liensberger: Oh, that is a hard question.....I will go with myself because I am the only one who has been on the podium this season.
BB: Good guess but incorrect. But because you are so nice, I will give you another chance. 
Liensberger: Katharina Huber because she has dark hair and the rest of us have light hair.
BB: No no no! But an interesting try nonetheless. It is Katharina Truppe. You, Katharina Huber, and Katharina Gallhuber all have an odd number of letters in your surnames. Katharina Truppe is the only one with a surname with a even number of letters. 
Liensberger: I never thought about it, but that's true. 
BB: Of course it's true. We at the Blickbild may be a bit bizarre, but we never lie. But do you or the other Katharinas?
Liensberger: No. We all grew up learning never to lie.
BB: So you don't try to fool your trainers?
Liensberger: How would we fool our trainers?
BB: You all pretend to be different Katharinas. For example, Katharina Gallhuber pretends to be Katharina Truppe, who pretends to be Katharina Huber, who pretends to be you. 
Liensberger: No. Our trainers can tell us apart. They would know if we were pretending to be someone else.
BB: Really? They can tell all of you Katharinas apart without any special markings on your training suits or different coloured lights on your helmets? 
Liensberger: Yes. Austrian ski trainers are smart enough to know who their athletes are.
BB: Maybe they learned their lesson after the Regina Sterz debacle (see this story). Do any of you try to fool your friends and family members by saying that you are a different Katharina?
Liensberger: No. We all look different enough that our friends and family can tell us apart.
BB: So ski racing fans and your trainers can be 100% sure that it was really you, and not one of the other Katharinas pretending to be you, who got 3rd place in Flachau?
Liensberger: It was definitely me.
BB: Well you are all about the same age and size. You and one of the other Katharinas could have switched helmets and skis and played a joke on your trainers and ski racing fans all over the world. Nobody would have known, at least while you were on the course. Katharina Truppe could have raced as you, but you actually showed up for the podium photos and award ceremony. 
Liensberger: That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard! If Kathi Truppe earned 3rd place, she would have gone to the award ceremony and posed for podium photos because she would have deserved it. Our team probably would have been disqualified if we tried to play a trick like that.
BB: I have one more theory about all of the Katharinas on Team Austria. Maybe you are really all four of them. 
Liensberger: What? !? Where are you coming up with this stuff?
BB: If you think for a moment, it makes a lot of sense. Maybe you have Multiple Personality Disorder. Instead of having separate male and female personalities, or personalities with different ages, you have four distinct personalities who are all named Katharina and are Austrian ski racers. Each of your Katharina personalities has a different surname.  
Liensberger: You think for a moment. If I were really all four Katharinas in one body, how would I finish a run, then make it back to the start of the the next Katharina's run? It would be impossible if one of we Katharinas started right after each each other.
BB: Modern ski lift technology is amazing. 
Liensberger: Don't you think our trainers and teammates would notice the difference between having one and four Katharinas in a training session or race? I would also be too tired to train or race if I was really all four Katharinas.
BB: Your wonderfully perceptive trainers and teammates evidently did not notice that Regina Sterz was really the former Regina Mader. They may have the same powers of observation with your four Katharina personalities.
Liensberger: I do not have four different personalities with their own surnames. There is just me and the other Katharinas are separate people. They are not separate personalities residing in my body. When are you going to ask me normal questions, like what my goals for the rest of the season are or if I hope to win a medal at the world championships in Are?
BB: If you wanted someone to ask you the usual questions, you should have been interviewed by Der Standard and not by us. We at the Blickbild usually do not ask those types of questions. 
Liensberger: Evidently. This has been by far the weirdest interview I ever had.
BB: That's because our specialty is weird interviews. But if you insist.....what are your goals for the rest of the season and do you hope to win a medal in Are? If I get fired for asking such mundane questions, you share the blame. 
Liensberger: I hope to continue my success and yes, I would like to win a medal in Are. Maybe your boss won't notice that you finally asked a normal question.
BB: Let's hope not. Well, it looks like we are out of time. I want to thank you for this interview and wish you and the other Katharinas success for the rest of the season. I'm sure we will be seeing you, assuming it is really you and not one of the Austrian Katharinas,  on the podium in future races. And that concludes another Boston Blickbild exclusive interview. 

The Boston Blickbild. Our motto is: None of our reporters have Multiple Personality Disorder

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