By Tom Slear//Contributor | Friday, May 4, 2018
In swimming, we’ve got it good. With the advent of electronic timing, very rarely do the outcomes of close races come down to the subjective opinions of an on-deck official. But that wasn’t always the case. This is part 2 of a two-part story on how swimming’s automatic timing system came to be.
Read Part 1
While Lance Larson lamented the officiating blunder that cost him a gold medal in the 100 free in the 1960 Olympics, Bill Parkinson, a physics professor at the University of Michigan, was putting the finishing touches on a system that would remove what nearly everyone associated with competitive swimming had come to recognize as the sport’s weakest link: humans trying to judge finishes amidst splashing and underwater touches.
Parkinson, a swimming official himself, was convinced his peers got it wrong as often as they got it right. Then there was the matter of human timing. “Atrocious,” Parkinson called it, citing the many instances he witnessed when three timers for one swimmer produced results that varied by as much as half a second.
Parkinson started tinkering in 1954. Over the next eight years, he worked part-time with two other University of Michigan professors. Omega Timing had already developed a system to record finishes and times, but it required a human to initiate the start and trigger the finish for each swimmer. It was better than a judge with a card, but not by much.
What was needed, Parkinson knew, was a starting gun wired to the system, which was easy enough to produce, and a pad in the water to record the finish, which wasn’t. Electricity and water are never a good combination. What’s more, a pad under water, even if only a few inches beneath the surface, would be under a tremendous amount of pressure. How to distinguish that kind of force from a swimmer’s touch was particularly vexing problem.
Parkinson started by having his wife, Martha, sew copper wire in a zigzag pattern into a rubber mat which he mounted on an aluminum plate. His thinking, which is still the principle applied to pads today, was that when a swimmer pressed the mat, the wires would touch the aluminum plate, thereby completing a circuit and prompting an electrical timepiece and judging system. Parkinson placed a second sheet of rubber over the first to ensure insulation.
Simple Yet Brilliant
But what to do about the water pressure? The pad had to distinguish between the momentary and relatively soft touch of a swimmer and the heavy, constant pressure of the water.
As in many other breakthroughs, Parkinson’s solution was brilliant yet simple: Fill the pad with non-conductive, silicone oil. The oil neutralized the water pressure, keeping it from closing the circuit, but offered no resistance to a hand touch.
By the late 1950’s, Parkinson had a system up and working that consisted of six pads and a console filled with vacuum tubes (you must be of a certain age to remember them) only to meet resistance from coaches.
In retrospect, their concerns were laughable. For one, they didn’t want their swimmers turning on the pad, something about pushing off against a different surface, so Parkinson devised a hinge that dropped the pads into place just before the finish. The coaches were also concerned about shortening the length of a race.
Say what? The pad was a quarter-inch thick!
The real concern, according to Gus Stager, the 1960 men’s Olympic coach and the long-time Michigan coach, was that Parkinson’s creation wouldn’t work. It would fail at crucial moments and produce results that defied what human eyes saw. What coaches wouldn’t concede was that what they saw was so often wrong.
The travesty in Rome began to mute their concerns. Parkinson’s creation became more common at meets by the mid-1960’s, though automatic timing and judging equipment, while often consulted, didn’t become required by FINA rules until 1969. Since then, swimming has been rendered controversy free, at least when it comes to who won.
Perhaps the most salient proof of this was the men’s 100 fly final at the 2008 Olympics. Michael Phelps was pursuing the seventh of his record-setting eight gold medals. He came on mightily over the last 15 meters to catch Serbia’s Milorad Cavic and win by one-hundredth of a second, 50.58 to 50.59.
But to many watching on television, it appeared that Cavic won, or at least tied. The underwater television view in particular gave an ever so slight nod to Cavic. The Serbian delegation appealed, claiming the timing system failed to properly register their countryman’s touch. Millions of viewers from around the world thought the Serbs had a good case.
Yet much like the Olympics in Rome 48 years earlier, help was sought from recorded images, only this time it wasn’t television film, but video produced by high definition cameras placed precisely at the finish and synchronized with the timing system. They recorded the last segment of the race at 100 frames per second. Officials isolated the frame at 50.58 and saw that Phelps had touched the pad. Cavic hadn’t.
Parkinson, who passed in 2012, was no doubt smiling.