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Source: CCTV.com

10-15-2008 11:26

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There’s little doubt who the true hero of the 1968 Mexico Olympics was: Bob Beamon, the American long-jumper whose “immortal leap” of 8.90 metres smashed the existing world record by an incredible 55 centimeters. The jump was so long that he landed outside the range of the optical measuring equipment. The judges had to bring out a traditional steel tape to measure the distance, which they confirmed after repeated checking. When the amazing result appeared on the board, Beamon, who didn’t understand the metric system, was unaware of its enormous significance. But after discovering that 8.9 meters equaled 29 feet 2 inches, Beamon knelt down and kissed the ground. His world record lasted for 23 years, until Mike Powell achieved a leap of 8.95 meters in Tokyo.

The optical length measuring equipment was not up to the job of measuring Beamon’s jump in Mexico. And Beamon didn’t understand the result, even when it was announced. Such are the problems facing the science of distance measuring in sports.

The measurement of distance is like timing, in that it is the lifeline of sports. All sporting events rely on accurate measurement in three-dimensions. The outcome of many events relies on the accurate measurement of distance. As the old Chinese saying goes: “A tiny error can lead to a mistake of a thousand miles.”

In the early years of the modern Olympics, leather tape measures were used in sports measurement. But the accuracy was often compromised, because the tape could be easily stretched, blown out of line by the wind, or twisted. The introduction of steel tapes made measurement more reliable. But they were difficult to handle. Moreover, the climate could affect the measurement, and still the distance that could be measured was limited. At the 1948 London Olympics, “mechanical measurement” made its first appearance. A tape was fixed along the side of the long jump sand pit. A rail, which could be both turned and slid, was fixed on the tape. As soon as the athlete completed his jump, this rail would be moved so that it aligned with the mark left by the athlete in the sand, and measure the distance. It was at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 that the first optical length measuring equipment was used. It consisted of a long steel ruler, just like a sliding track, which was suspended, parallel to the sand pit. An optical device resembling a telescope would slide along the steel tape, like a weight on a balance. When this “telescope” was positioned at 90 degrees to the landing point in the bunker, the mark on the steel tape would be recorded as the jump distance. However, Beamon’s jump exceeded the length of the track, which was why the optical equipment was unable to measure it.

The standardization of measurement was another important milestone. In the 1908 London Olympics, the metric system was established as the mandatory system. This was a major breakthrough. Consequently, people around the world used the same system and understood each other. Yet, even in 1968, a sports veteran like Beamon was still unfamiliar with the metric system, which testified to the difficulty of measuring the “distance” between cultures.

Errors in measuring distances can have serious consequences in sport. At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, American sprinter Ralph Metcalfe missed out on the gold medal in the 200 metres sprint because the track he was running on was 2 meters longer than the standard. At the same Olympics, in the 3000 meter steeplechase, all the athletes ran an extra lap. The American Joseph McCluske was overtaken and instead of a silver medal, went home with the bronze. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Canadian shooter Gerald Ouellette set a world record of 600 points in the Small-bore Rifle, prone. Only afterwards was it discovered that the shooting distance was 1.5 meters shorter than the Olympic standard. So the record couldn’t be recognized. Even at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in the gymnastics events, because of installation and adjustment errors, the vault was 5 centimeters lower than the standard. One after another, the world’s finest gymnasts, including Svetlana Khorkina, fell during the vault. In 1965, at China’s second national games, the 10,000 meters runners finished a lap too early. As a result, the event was declared void.

Faster and more accurate; this is the aim of distance measurement in sports. The development of modern technology is improving measurement almost on a daily basis. Today, when athletes throw the javelin or discus, an umpire runs out and marks the landing point. Then laser measuring equipment will report an immediate and highly accurate result.

The basic principle of such equipment is to have light cover the distance, instead of a human. Infrared light is invisible, and with a wavelength of 900 nanometers, harmless to the human eyes. It can also be reflected back from the landing mark, so that it can be registered twice. A comparison between the outgoing and incoming beams of light can generate an accurate measurement of the distance the light has traveled.

The latest laser distance measuring equipment ejects continuous short laser pulses, and then receives the light reflected from the landing mark. Light travels at a speed of 300,000 kilometers a second, and the equipment, by measuring in nanoseconds, can accurately read the time it takes the light to travel to the mark and back again. The rest is just a simple calculation.

The mark that is placed at the point of landing is specially designed. The top is a sort of prism, which is a reflecting device. No matter from which direction the light comes, the mark reflects it straight back. For the highly sensitive measuring equipment, this signal is more than enough to process.

The distance measuring equipment must never be positioned directly behind the athletes. So the laser light must actually follow a slightly different course to the landing point. However, the equipment adjusts the result, using trigonometry. .

When a long jumper fouls at the take-off, a board will immediately show by how much he stepped over the line. The information is gathered from a row of infrared lights positioned close to the ground, which sweep across the take-off board. When the athlete’s foot hits the board, it will block the light, and a receiver will pinpoint the exact location.

In long-distance running, before the start the athletes will pin a button containing a microchip on themselves. Each chip contains information specific to that athlete. Every time a runner passes the lap counter, a signal from the chip will be received and processed, and a board will display how many laps he or she has left to run.

In an International Marathon held in Hungary on April the 15th, 2007, a Kenyan runner named Philips won in a remarkable time of two hours ten minutes and forty-six seconds. However, it was later discovered that, because of a measurement error, the course was 2200 meters too short. Hungarian sports officials offered a written apology. A special process is involved in measuring the courses for marathons and other long-distance road races. The measurement has to be taken by an official certified by the International Association of Athletics Federations. The measurer rides a calibrated bicycle equipped with a counter. The counter is always fixed on the left side of the front wheel shaft. For every revolution of the wheel, it counts 20 points. As the perimeter of the wheel is a fixed length, it’s easy to determine the whole distance of the course, once the number of revolutions is known.

Counter for measuring a marathon course

The IAAF has officially mandated the distance for the Marathon as 42.195 kilometers. However, in view of the minor errors that can occur in measuring by cycling, one meter is added for every kilometer counted, so the counter will indicate 42.237 kilometers. The basic principle is always to count loose rather than tight. Another important consideration is that in Marathons and other road races, where there are inevitably turns on the course, the runners will always choose the shortest possible route, and run at a tangent between left and right turns. So the course measurer is required to be able to identify the shortest possible route.

From the distance of a marathon course to the height of a vault, and the distance a javelin is thrown; the accuracy and constant improvement of measurement technology is the guarantee of fair play at any sports event.