Did Michael Phelps get a gold medal for a race he lost?

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 25 2008 8:19 AM

Untouchable

Did Michael Phelps get a gold medal for a race he lost?

Check out Slate's complete coverage of the Beijing Games.

Michael Phelps. Click image to expand.
Michael Phelps celebrates his victory in the 100-meter butterfly

Did Michael Phelps really earn eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In his next-to-last medal race, the 100-meter butterfly, Phelps trailed Milorad Cavic all the way to the wall. Nobody who saw the race in real time, including Phelps' mother, thought he had won. Yet the scoreboard showed him beating Cavic by one-hundredth of a second.

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"The scoreboard said I got my hand on the wall first," Phelps declared afterward. The Boston Globe, like other American newspapers, agreed: "Phelps got his hand on the wall first."  Cornel Marculescu, head of the world swimming federation, FINA, confirmed the verdict: "There is no doubt the first arrival was Michael Phelps." The race referee added: "There are no doubts. It was very clear that [Cavic] touched second."

Sorry, but none of these assurances holds water. The scoreboard doesn't tell you which swimmer arrived, touched, or got his hand on the wall first. It tells you which swimmer, in the milliseconds after touching the wall, applied enough force to trigger an electronic touch pad. As to whether Phelps touched first, there's plenty of unresolved doubt.

The human eye, in real time and basic video replay, suggests Cavic won. But that could be an optical illusion. Cavic takes one big stroke toward the wall, then glides to it with fingers extended. Phelps does the opposite: He shortens his stroke so he can squeeze in one more truncated stroke. He gambles that the speed he gets from the extra launch will make up for the additional time it requires. Cavic leads but closes the distance to the wall slowly; Phelps trails but closes the distance fast. In ultraslow-motion replays, it looks as though Cavic has reached the wall while Phelps is still closing. But these replays break down Cavic's glide to such short increments that you can't really tell whether he has stopped.

Marculescu says there's ''absolutely no doubt'' who won, because the clock registered Phelps' arrival first, and "the touch stops the clock.'' Not true. A touch doesn't stop the clock. The touch pad is designed to require a certain degree of force, because otherwise, slight pressure from the water would trigger it. "You can't just put your fingertips on the pad, you really have to push it," the race timekeeper explains. A FINA vice president says the crucial moment is "the instant of depression, of activation of the touch pad, not contact with the pad."

On Saturday, a week after the race, FINA tried to squelch the controversy by releasing four pairs of digital frames that track the two swimmers side by side as they reach the wall. "In the third set of images, with Phelps on the left, it is clear he is really pushing hard, while Cavic, on the right, is just arriving," the timekeeper told the Associated Press.

Again, not true. In the pictures, Cavic appears to have arrived by the second frame, if not the first—at a minimum, tying Phelps. (See for yourself.) And Phelps is moving so much faster and more forcefully that you have to wonder: Given the delay between contact and pressure, if the touch pad recorded Phelps' pressure only one-hundredth of a second before Cavic's, how likely is it that Cavic made initial contact before Phelps did?

Technically, the question of who touched first doesn't matter. FINA and the Olympics honchos agreed beforehand to use the touch pads; the touch pads require pressure; all swimmers and their coaches should know this. But that technical argument leaves two ugly, unresolved problems. One is that FINA, the timekeeper, the referee, and the media keep telling us, falsely, that Phelps "touched," "arrived," and "got his hand on the wall" first. "In our sport, it's who touches first," Marculescu told the AP on Saturday. Bull. It's not who touches first. It's who triggers the sensor first.

The other problem is that even FINA isn't sure how much pressure the touch pads require. On Saturday, Marculescu told the New York Times that the threshold was 3 kilograms per square centimeter. But in the same article, a FINA vice president said the threshold was 1.5 kilograms. If FINA's executives don't know the correct number, is it reasonable to expect Cavic to know it? And if he had realized how much pressure was required, would he have shortened his stroke as Phelps did, trying to trigger the sensor first, instead of trying to touch the wall first?

I'm not saying the touch-pad system is fishy. It beats the heck out of the old stopwatch method, not to mention the mysteries of judging gymnastics. It's the fairest, most precise system around. And that's the point: Even the most precise system leaves a gray area. In this case, it's the area between touching and pressing. Did Phelps beat Cavic to the wall? We'll never know.

Update Aug. 27: Many readers in the Fray  point out that I overlooked better pictures in Sports Illustrated. I've addressed those pictures and amended my position in the Human Nature  blog.

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