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What's My Time?

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by , December 28th, 2015 at 03:55 PM (5860 Views)
What's My Time? It is the question that every swimmer wants to know as soon as the race is over. But, with different types of timing systems, the possibility of malfunctions, and the requirements for records to be established, the answer can be more complicated that many swimmers realize. Determining official time is one of the key jobs for officials and one that we all take seriously since every swimmer is entitled to the most accurate time that we can determine for each race. Much of the work to determine official times and get the results published takes place behind the scenes at a meet.

USMS rules define different types of timing systems and levels of timing systems that can be used for different official purposes (103.17.1, 103.17.2, and 103.18.4). A "fully automatic" system is one which uses an automatic start (activated by the starter when the starting signal is given) and a touchpad finish. The term "fully automatic" means that the timing system does all of the work and no human action (like pressing a button) is required. A fully automatic system is considered the most accurate type of timing system and is therefore the highest level of timing possible. Times obtained from a fully automatic system are good for any purpose, including world records, USMS records, LMSC records, and USMS top ten rankings (103.18.4). If everything is working correctly, the time recorded by the touchpad at the end of your race becomes your official time (103.17.8-A). With modern electronic scoreboards, swimmers often have the luxury of seeing the official time as soon as the race is completed - for better or worse!

But, the scoreboard times are not official times until reviewed by an official (103.7.2-C). Sometimes swimmers are surprised when their posted time in the results does not match the scoreboard. Why would that be the case? Sometimes touchpads can malfunction, either by failing to record a touch, recording a late touch, or (rarely) an errant early touch. More often, swimmers fail to touch the pad with enough force to record a touch at the finish or touch some other part of the wall. If you finish your race and look up at the scoreboard only to see the clock still running, that is a pretty good indication of a malfunction! The officials will use both observations and comparisons of primary and backup times to identify malfunctions.

Because automatic timing systems can malfunction, the rules require backup systems (103.17.2-B). Most commonly, timers stationed at the finish end use buttons (which are also connected to the electronic timing system) to record a backup time. A timing system that uses an automatic start and a human-recorded finish is known as a "semi-automatic" system (103.17.1-B). Because human reaction times are involved (and buttons can also malfunction), we usually need more than one button time to ensure accuracy. Volunteers are hard to find, so many times it depends on how many timers are available.

If the pad time is invalid, do we just use the button times to determine your official time? Not necessarily. Remember that button times are not as accurate because there is human reaction time involved. So, the rules define several different methods to correct for this inaccuracy (10317.3-C through G). The referee may determine that a consistent average difference could be added to (or subtracted from) all of the button times at a single meet. Some timing systems already apply a standard correction factor and others do not, so it may depend on what brand of timing system is being used. The referee may also determine that a specific correction factor is needed for an individual lane malfunction. This is typically done by calculating the difference between all of the good pad times and the button times for every other lane in the same heat. The average difference is then used as the correction factor. Even more accurate would be to calculate the average pad-button difference for several heats on the same lane before and after the race in question. If the buttons fail, watch times can still be used for this purpose, but more often watch times are simply used for comparison to help identify malfunctions.

A recent innovation in elite meets is the use of stationary overhead cameras, which may be used instead of backup buttons provided they are fully integrated with the primary timing system. (103.17.2-B)

Why do we go to all of this trouble? Because the rules say that any corrected time (using any of these methods) is just as good a fully-automatic (pad) time, whether one, two, or three buttons are used as backup system. Corrected times can used for any official purpose, including records and Top Ten. (103.18.7)

If touchpads are not available, a semi-automatic system can still be used as the primary timing system for the meet. But, for records to count, you must have three buttons (which means three timers) for each lane. USMS top ten rankings can still be achieved with a semi-automatic system using two timers per lane. And, if no electronic timing system is available, hand-held watches can still be used, but three watches are necessary for records and two watches for top ten rankings.

One rule every swimmer will be glad to know exists is 103.18.6. "No swimmer shall be required to re-swim a race due to equipment failure that results in unrecorded or inaccurate time or place." That is another reason for multiple backup systems and procedures to ensure that every swimmer receives a fair and accurate time.

In response to changes in USA Swimming rules, USMS will have a task force studying the rules for official time determination in 2016 that could result in some changes, but any changes would not occur until 2017.

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  1. Chris Stevenson's Avatar
    Very nice blog post, Charlie. How did I not know about this Rules blog until the most recent Streamlines? What a good resource.