Why Olympic Track And Field Events Don't Use Starting Pistols Anymore

Did you know the reason Olympic track and field events no longer use starting pistols is that the runners farthest from the gun were posting demonstrably slower start times? That's even with the help of digital speakers.

For a long time, the sound of the gun was pumped in from behind each runner at the same time it fired, but runners would still wait for the sound of the actual gun:

[Michael] Johnson's reaction time, [Peter Hürzeler of OMEGA] said, "was 440 thousandths of a second. Normally athletes leave between 130 and 140 thousandths of a second. ... I asked him, why did you have such a bad starting time?" Turned out, Johnson was in the ninth position, and the sound of the gun was reaching him too slowly.

Four tenths of a second is a massive amount of time in a sprint. It sounds even crazier when you realise that it's caused by the amount of time it takes the bang to go from a gun to an athlete's ears 20 yards away on the starting blocks. [The Atlantic]

Image: Michael Steele/Getty Images Sport

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    Speed of sound is 340m/s. 20 yards is 18.2 m, which is 54ms. Where does the 440ms figure come from?

      I'm guessing it's because they actually end up waiting for the sound of the gun echoing off the stadium around them.

    But they do, most interesting is that the pistol is a 38 Magnum wth special blanks in it, just heard an interview on a BBC podcast

      me too. i love the NOW show

    I don't understand how they calculate it. 20 yards is 18 meters. Sound travels at 330 meters a second, which means it is around 50ms later. I admit that's an unfair advantage but the calculation are not right.

      Well, subtract 140ms to start with as the base reaction time, then take off the 50ms delay. The remaining 250ms is apparently mental processing time caused by reconciling the two sounds when the athlete is trying to balance the requirements of getting a good start while avoiding a false start.

        The only difference, however, between a runner on block #1, and block #9, is the (approx) 50ms* sound delay.

        All runners have the 140ms base reaction time, and all have the processing time.

        If there is a longer delay in starting, then it is likely something else. Possibly additional processing of multiple sounds (starter and reverb of starter from surrounding surfaces) or something completely unrelated.

        * give or take depending on temp, air pressure and humidity.

    Because they're talking about changes in the athletes reaction times. Not the speed of sound.

    Why don't they just use lights and beeps like they do for car racing?

      have you ever seen someone "get ready, set, go"

      they are looking up and cant concentrate on lights.

    All so people can known when to start running... The unfortunate thing about this is you realise how utterly silly running races are in the scheme of things. The science here is sort of like switching the lights on in a nightclub- suddenly everything looks crappy and lame.

      Not really. These guys run so incredibly fast, and their races can be so close that every little thing counts. It's amazing just seeing how much of a difference things like performance enhancing drugs and aerodynamic suits can make.

    Sooooooo... what do they use instead?

      They use some LED lights on the track, in front of the athletes.

    just use a cannon and problem solved

      How? Just because it's louder doesn't make the speed of sound increase.

        Sarcasm anyone?

          Nerds dont get Sarcasm, haven't you watched the Big Bang Theory.

    I think they reached the wrong conclusion. I think the cause is that the closer you are to the gun, the louder it is, the more it causes your adrenalin to surge. Nistrod is right. The calculations do not stack up. Average reaction time is http://www.humanbenchmark.com/tests/reactiontime/stats.php about 215MS. OK, maybe faster for athletes, but it has a greater degree of variability than 22ms deviation anyway, which means getting test results that mean anything would be almost impossible.

    Didn't they ever just think that maybe the reaction of some people is a little slower....

    Maybe Johnson needs little Starting coaching..... as calculated 20 yards ~50 ms, therefore the distance has little to do with the delay.... Hey people always need an excuse for bad performance....

    Why not use the light tree as in moror racing, at least there is a visual cue, and light travels a little faster than sound.

      Please, do you even know who Michael Johnson is? He's one of the greatest athletes of all time with a world record in the 400m which still stands today, over a decade later. His starting ability is fine, and he doesn't need any excuses because he never had bad performances. His "slow" starting time was for the 400m in Sydney, which he still went on to win easily.

    ^a little?

    they start to use an eletronic "pistol" instead, with speakers behind each atlhete; unfortunately the sound is poor and seems like an "whooonm" from a lightsaber; all of athletes that compete with me complains about... we always be happy when it raining since the refs donĀ“t use this system on wet...

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