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Sarajevo 1984

Sarajevo experienced every facet of the Olympic Winter Games between 8 and 19 February 1984. As usual in such circumstances, it was the skiers who were most affected in Bosnia as well. The men’s downhill had to be postponed twice, while the women’s race, started at the second attempt on 15 February, had to be interrupted after ten competitors due to poor visibility and dangerous conditions.


False start detectors-some had to get used to them

Timekeepers sometimes live dangerously. Such was the experience of the OMEGA team when they started operating the first false start detection device at the 1982 Commonwealth Games swimming events. After they were the victims of violent assaults, the team had to change hotels in Brisbane. Newspapers had written about “stolen victories” after Australian and Canadian relay teams were disqualified three times in six races. Illegal changeovers could now be technically proven and some people had to get used to the idea. The excitement had calmed down by the time the 1984 Olympic Games came round and the new technology had been accepted. Nevertheless, three relay teams were still disqualified in five finals at the University of Southern California.

There were two winners of the women’s 100 m freestyle at the 1984 Games after the USA’s Carolyn Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead were both timed at 55.92 seconds. If the times had been measured to the nearest 1/1000th of a second, as they had been in 1972 in the 400 m individual medley race between Gunnar Larsson and Tim McKee, Steinseifer would have come out on top. After lengthy preparatory work, a perfectly functioning false start detection device was used in athletics for the first time. It had been tested many times, using finish line cameras at the start. 1976 Olympic 200 m champion Don Quarrie (JAM) had offered his services for the tests. The device is based on the pressure in kilograms which runners exert at the start of a race. The start is the only part of the race where timekeeping does not measure a geometric distance, but rather a psychological one, as it were: reaction time. This is the period of time between the moment an athlete hears the start signal and when he or she explodes off the starting blocks. Since 1990, the IAAF rules have stipulated that athletes are allowed a reaction time of 0.100 seconds, a figure which “gives” them a few 1/100ths of a second on top of the average person’s reaction time. The starting block apparatus is used in order to determine exactly when the athlete reacts. The reaction time is triggered when the athlete’s leg exerts 29 kg (or 27 kg for women) of pressure. Maximum leg pressure is 150 kg, at which point the runner’s hands leave the floor. At around 70 kg, the foot of the starting leg breaks away from the starting block and at 0 kg, the athlete is on his or her way.

Every individual starting block is monitored by a calibrated dynamometer and each runner hears the starter’s commands and signal through their own loudspeaker. Without this equipment, it would be impossible to ensure an objective comparison between sprinters’ performances. False starts are indicated to the starter via an acoustic signal and a time printout. Technological advances in the sprint events have been enormous since the early days. As in many fields, the USA played a pioneering role, introducing starting blocks and wind gauges back in 1929. In 1936, the IAAF decided that the maximum allowable tail wind should be 2.0 m/s and that wind gauges should be used. Previously, the list of world records included comments such as “tail wind”, “not too much wind” or “very little wind”. Starting blocks were first permitted in 1937. When Jesse Owens became four-times Olympic champion in Berlin in 1936, he still had to dig his own starting holes, which lost him three to four hundredths of a second. Next came the “slow” cinder track and spikes, which were not as advanced as they are nowadays. The first world record to be set on an artificial track did not occur until 1963, while times and world records were not officially expressed to the nearest 1/100th of a second until 1972. In the same year, the first false start system was tested at the Olympic Games in Munich.

Sprinters have been able to hear the starters’ commands through a loudspeaker since 1976. Only electronically timed world records have been recognised since 1977. It was first permitted to record reaction times on results lists in 1994. Runners have been automatically called back following a false start since 1998. Most of these changes could have been introduced much earlier – the automatic recall in 1987, for example.


Delays left timekeepers short of time

Michela Figini (born 7 April 1966) was leading at the time and the Swiss team management protested against the interruption. The timekeepers would also have liked to protest, since the postponement meant that the women’s and men’s downhill events would now be held on the same day, on two different mountains and with only an hour and a half between them. A race against the clock began.

In the end, the women’s downhill began under light snowfall in Jahorina ten minutes late, at 10.30 a.m. To the relief of the Swiss, Figini was again the fastest, finishing 0.05 seconds ahead of fellow countrywoman Maria Walliser. Aged 17 years 315 days, the happy soul from Ticino, a real whizzkid who had already won a World Cup downhill race, celebrated becoming the youngest Olympic women’s Alpine skiing champion – and also the one with the narrowest margin of victory – while the timekeepers longed for the end of the race, in which 32 skiers were participating, because the men’s downhill was due to start in Bjelasnica at 12 noon. They were transported there in an army helicopter.

The sun was shining and the first forerunners were already on their way down as the timekeepers carried out their final tests. They were ready in time for the first skier. Seven minutes and 45.59 seconds later, they had timed the Olympic champion and calculated that Bill Johnson (born 30 March 1960) had achieved an average speed of 104.5 km/h. The American outsider inflicted a painful defeat on the Swiss and Austrians, led by Peter Müller. Seventeen years later, Johnson suffered irreparable brain damage during a comeback attempt in the US state of Montana.



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