Why They Gave Out Two Gold Medals In Downhill Skiing Instead Of Measuring To 1/1000th Of A Second

Downhill skiing tieNBCOlympicsThe scoreboard shows a tie as Maze crosses the finish line.

Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin and Slovenia’s Tina Maze tied for gold in the women’s downhill on Wednesday, the first time in Olympics history that an alpine skiing event awarded two gold medals.

They each finished with a final time of 1:47.57.

While a tie seems fair in that situation, the technology is there to break down the times another decimal place (1/1000th of a second) to determine a winner.

Skiing chooses to round times to the 1/100th place instead of the seemingly more accurate 1/1000th place. Why?

There’s a pretty interesting explanation.

Olympic historian Bill Mallon wrote a post about the race on OlympStats. He says that 1/1000th of a second equates to a distance of 1 inch at downhill speeds.

While that’s a large enough distance to measure with modern timing technology, it’s within the margin of error in the grand scheme of things.

The example he uses is that the finish line might not be perfectly straight. If one side of the line is 1.1 inches further down or up the hill, it’s the difference between winning and losing.

From Mallon:

“How accurate is the finish line? If Maze finished on the left side of the finish, and Gisin on the right side, is that accurate enough to measure to 1/1000th, especially when the start line is 3,000 metres away. So if you measure to 1/1000th would you be penalising one skier for finishing on one side of the course and not the other, without them really knowing which side is shorter? You could be.”

It makes intuitive sense to measure times to the smallest possible decimal place. But in practice, there is a point at which the margins are so small that any tiny disparity in external variables renders that precision useless. Mallon tells the story of a swimming race that would have produced a different outcome if a single coat of paint was added to one of the lanes, for instance.

Many Olympic sports only measure to the 1/100th of a second, despite the technology for more accurate times, for precisely this reason.

Earlier this week, 1/1000ths were used to decide the men’s 500m speed skating race. But the standard for the majority sports that are contested over a significant distance is to use the 1/100th place, and call it a tie.

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