Five-Ring Circus

A Not-So-Magic Wand Is to Blame for the Tie in the Women’s Downhill

(L-R) Gold medalists Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze pose on the podium at the Sochi medals plaza during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 12, 2014.

Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, skiers Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze tied for gold in the women’s downhill, with each posting a time of 1:41.57 seconds. The gold-medal tie was the first in the history of Olympic skiing. In a post for Five-Ring Circus, I noted that the tie likely would have been averted if, like in luge, the International Ski Federation (FIS) recorded athletes’ times down to 1/1000th of a second, a task that is well within the capacity of the clocks being used by the official timers. The FIS doesn’t want to do that, though, explaining to the New York Times that when you start talking about numbers smaller than 1/100th of a second, “you cannot guarantee the integrity of that number.”

I criticized that answer yesterday, noting that the all-weather clocks the official timers use are extremely precise and accurate. But I may have spoken too soon. As it turns out, the real issue might not be with the trustworthiness of the clocks, but with how those clocks get triggered.

In an Alpine skiing race, the clock starts when the skier exits the starting gate and trips a long, thin starting wand with her body as she heads downhill. This wand then flips a switch to activate the clock. Michael Walker, an FIS timer, explained to me via email that the wand/switch system “is not that accurate and that is the limiting reason that we only time to 0.01 of a second.” In a separate email, David Iverson, who works as a chief of timing for FIS races, noted that “variability in how the wand flexes” and “in the angle at which the switch closes” means it’s very hard to time skiers down to 1/1000th of a second.

Can the FIS do better than this weird wand contraption? Michael Walker thinks so. “For years, we have recommended that we use timing eyes on the start ramp to start time. This would then improve the overall accuracy of the system,” he wrote. “This is the same as the bob/luge track and the process they changed to decades ago.”

A timing eye is an electronic device that creates an invisible start beam through which an athlete passes to start the clock. Sounds like a good contraption to me! Maybe the Maze-Gisin tie will prompt the FIS to replace the wand with the eye.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.