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. 

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