Off at the Crack of the Gun

The countdown is down to one day to the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

There's news today, though, about a countdown of a different sort to be held at the Games, the one that goes "on your marks, get set, go." In track events, as everyone knows, "go" is replaced by the sound of the starter's pistol firing. Now comes a report that says that runners closer to the starter get a better chance of winning than competitors who are poised in lanes farther away. It's a small advantage, but in sprints the margin of victory can be measured in hundredths of a second.

A report from the online site LiveScience tells us that there is a bias built into the traditional lane assignment system used in track meets. Competitors are assigned lanes to run in by the luck of the draw. Until now, most athletes and meet organizers figured that the placement of the runners was arbitrary, conveying no advantage to anyone in particular. A scientific investigation has proven them wrong, though.

Researchers at the University of Alberta first studied the reaction times of sprinters in two races at the 2004 Athens Olympics and found that runners in Lane 1, closest to the pistol, got out of the blocks in 160 milliseconds (ms), while their competitors in the further lanes averaged a response time of 175 ms overall. Then they took the study to the next level. They held their own mini-meet, recruiting four trained sprinters and 12 untrained runners to participate in takeoffs from starting blocks modified to measure horizontal force.

As a variable, the scientists varied the loudness of the starter's pistol from 80 decibels (db) to 120 db. The result was surprising: The louder the gunshot, the faster the reaction time from the sprinters.

"In sprint events, where hundredths of a second can make the difference between a gold medal and a silver, minimizing reaction time can be the key to an athlete's success," said the university's Alex Brown. "We suggest that procedures presently used to start the Olympic sprint events give runners closer to the starter the advantage of hearing the 'go' signal louder; consequently, they react sooner than their competitors."

So it looks like science has found a flaw in a time-honored method of trying to give all competitors sprinting for a gold medal a fair chance.

This is one instance in which it's better to be closer to a gun going off than farther away.

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