Swiss skier Dominique Gisin and Slovenian skier Tina Maze tied for first in the women’s downhill today, both completing the course in 1:41.57 seconds. After briefly considering throwing up their hands and awarding the gold medal to Shaun White, who could really use some validation after finishing fourth in the halfpipe, the International Ski Federation (FIS) resolved the issue by giving gold medals to both Maze and Gisin. Ties in sports are always sort of fun, and I’m not upset to see one here; judging from their post-race remarks, neither are Gisin and Maze. “I'm sure glad I'm going to share this gold with Tina,” said Gisin. “It's something special,” said Maze. Awwww! Best friends!
But it’s still weird that the race had to end like this, because the timekeepers know who really won. The official timing for all Olympic events is supervised by the Swatch Group, through its divisions Omega Watches and Swiss Timing. These companies have served as Olympic timekeepers for decades, dating back to when officials used stopwatches to measure athletes’ times down to a tenth of a second. The technology has improved since then, and today Swiss Timing can measure every race in every event with such precision that there should never be any question about who won. The International Luge Federation, for example, times its races down to 1/1000th of a second. So does speedskating. Why can’t the FIS do the same?
Well, it can, and it does. That’s the weird thing. The official FIS rule book for international ski competitions says competitors’ times “must be immediately and automatically sequentially recorded on printed strips to at least the 1/1000th (0.001) precision.” As Bill Pennington reported today in the New York Times, the clock in the official timing booth on the downhill ski slope actually exceeds that standard, measuring skiers’ times to 1/10000th of a second. So even though the women’s downhill was scored as a tie, “in the timing control booth, three people—the head timer, a backup timer and a computer operator—saw who won the race according to the timing data.”
Just because this information exists—and I know the backup timer is just dying to spill the times!—doesn’t mean the judges have to pay attention to it. The scoring for each Olympic sport is overseen by that sport’s organizing body, which, in downhill skiing’s case, is the FIS. These federations have complete latitude to determine the precision with which their events will be timed and scored. So even though FIS officially records competitors’ times down to 1/1000th of a second, the official rule book says that when it comes to handing out medals, “The final result for each skier’s run is then expressed to 1/100th (0.01) precision by truncating the calculated net time on course.” (The FIS, to be fair, isn’t alone in eschewing greater precision; both skeleton and bobsled, for instance, also only count times down to 1/100th of a second.)
Why? The communications manager for FIS told the New York Times that “[w]hen you start getting into such small numbers you cannot guarantee the integrity of that number. It’s an outdoor sport in a winter climate, a piece of flesh could be the difference.”
As you might have noticed, that answer makes no sense. These aren’t rickety old grandfather clocks we’re talking about, but expensive and sophisticated machines that can measure with extraordinary precision. The real reason behind the FIS’s failure to change the rules is likely inertia. Gisin and Maze are the first Olympic skiers ever to tie for gold, which means the FIS hasn’t yet had to deal with this particular outcome. The International Luge Federation didn’t change its rule book to require more precise timing until a doubles gold medal tie at the 1972 Olympics forced the issue. We’ll see whether the FIS now does the same.