Runners cross a waist-high finish line. Gymnasts and divers receive their scores from a panel of judges. Volleyball and basketball players strive to score more points than the other team.

How are the athletes of the open water swimming judged? Is it any different from triathlons or land-based endurance events? In some swims, official times are not given. In other races, timing is a major deal where various factors come into play in the marine environment.

Perspective of the Swimmer
In some races, open water swimmers carry their own timing devices, called transponders.

The transponders are about the same weight and size of a waterproof wristwatch. They can be placed around the wrist or around the ankles. The biggest races own their own transponders, but most race directors pay a timing company to provide the timing system and transponders.

At the Olympics and professional races, each swimmer receives two transponders for timing and placing purposes. They secure the transponders on each wrist and are required to finish the race with both transponders. If one or both of the transponders come off during the race, the swimmer is usually provided with another transponder.

In swims where there is an onshore finish, transponders often are worn around the ankles. When the athlete walks or runs over the timing mat at the finish, the official time is triggered by the electronics or sensors in the mat and recorded by the swimmer.

In order for the wrist transponders to stay firmly, swimmers often snugly tape the transponders to their wrists with waterproof tape. The tape also helps the transponder’s wrist straps from flapping about, which could cause severe frustration during a two-hour race. The ankle transponders are less bothersome and are usually adhered by waterproof tape or velcro.

Finish Pad
At the Olympic and major professional marathon swims, athletes finish the race by slapping any one of six touch pads that are elevated above the surface of the water at the finish line. The touch pads are supported by a special floating pontoon that is anchored at the finish line. The swimmers must hit the touch pads to officially finish. That is, even if they break the plane of the touch pads at the finish, but miss touching the pads, they are judged to not have finished the race.

Video Documentation
Because groups of swimmers often barrel into the finish together, it is difficult to always determine the finish time or position. So race directors video-tape the finish area and swimmers through a series of cameras that are strategically placed at and around the finish line. The cameras are used to capture the photo-finishes that are common at most major competitions, especially among the elite field. Two cameras are often placed on either side of the finish pontoon while another camera is placed on a non-moveable object (pier, shore) in order to provide a steady perspective.

Human Judgment
Although electronics, computers, videos, sensors and transponders are used, the official placing of the swimmers is ultimately decided by finish judges – either by their own eyes or upon a post-race review of the finish as captured by the cameras. Often, there are a minimum of three judges positioned at the finish line responsible for this final decision.

But sometimes the finishes are so close that it takes hours of review of the video tape to determine a winner and proper placing. There was a race at the 2004 World Open Water Swimming Championships in Dubai that was decided using all four processes. As the Dutch and German swimmer sprinted stroke-for-stroke to the finish over the last 200 meters, they were exactly synchronized with their stroke count and breathing patterns. Neither of the athletes was able to drop the other. Towards the final few meters, the two swimmers simultaneously raised their heads looking up toward the touch pads. They both reached up to the touch pads at the same time with their leading hand, but they both missed the touch pads in their final stroke. As the momentum of the swimmers carried them across the plane of the goal, they both wisely extended back with their rear hands to simultaneously hit the touch pads. The synchronicity of the rivals was mind-boggling to witness.

The system worked as planned. The transponders were triggered when the swimmers slapped the touch pads at the same time. The video cameras captured the photo-finish. But the Dutch supporters cheered in victory – as did the German fans. The rest of the crowd gasped in excitement and then hushed to learn the winner. Using the video camera images, the judges went into deliberation. No one could agree and the debate lasted a few hours before the Dutch swimmer was ultimately declared the victor.

Historical Evolution
The transponders and floating timing system are innovations from Omega that has managed the timekeeping at the Olympics since 1932. Omega developed the first semi-automatic swimming timer used at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. It later developed the original touch pads placed at each end of swimming pools that were first used at the 1967 Winnipeg Pan American Games. Split times at professional marathon swims started in 2010 and were used at the 2012 London Olympic Games.


Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source


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