The Elusive Nature of Time – When is a Tie a Tie and Not a Tie

Kanako WatanabeKanako Watanabe is one of the up-and-coming swimmers from Japan, who won gold in the 200-meter breaststroke at the world championships in Kazan, Russia in early August.

More interestingly, in that same competition, the bronze medal went to three swimmers as they all finished with the identical time of 2 minutes and 22.76 seconds.

In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the regulations set by the international swimming body FINA dictated that times were measured in tenths of seconds, and the first arbiter of times were human judges. In fact, judges would line up at the end of the pool where the race would finish. Not only did they time the swimmers with hand-held stopwatches, they also used their eyes to determine when the swimmer in their lane touched the wall, presumably seeing finishers with their peripheral vision to determine whether they finished ahead or behind swimmers in neighboring lanes.

In the men’s 100 meter freestyle competition, Don Schollander took gold in an Olympic record time of 53.4 seconds. Brit Robert McGregor took silver with a time of 53.5 seconds. However, two men ended up with identical third-place times. Both Hans-Joachim Klein of Germany and Gary Illman of the USA were determined by the judges to have touched the wall at 54 seconds flat. But using the unofficial electronic time available at the Tokyo Games, Klein finished one one-thousandth of a second faster, and was awarded bronze.

So remember, even today, every one one-thousandth of a second counts.