A Not-So-Magic Wand Is to Blame for the Tie in the Women’s Downhill

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 13 2014 5:42 PM

A Not-So-Magic Wand Is to Blame for the Tie in the Women’s Downhill

(L-R) Gold medalists Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze pose on the podium at the Sochi medals plaza during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 12, 2014.

Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, skiers Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze tied for gold in the women’s downhill, with each posting a time of 1:41.57 seconds. The gold-medal tie was the first in the history of Olympic skiing. In a post for Five-Ring Circus, I noted that the tie likely would have been averted if, like in luge, the International Ski Federation (FIS) recorded athletes’ times down to 1/1000th of a second, a task that is well within the capacity of the clocks being used by the official timers. The FIS doesn’t want to do that, though, explaining to the New York Times that when you start talking about numbers smaller than 1/100th of a second, “you cannot guarantee the integrity of that number.”

I criticized that answer yesterday, noting that the all-weather clocks the official timers use are extremely precise and accurate. But I may have spoken too soon. As it turns out, the real issue might not be with the trustworthiness of the clocks, but with how those clocks get triggered.


In an Alpine skiing race, the clock starts when the skier exits the starting gate and trips a long, thin starting wand with her body as she heads downhill. This wand then flips a switch to activate the clock. Michael Walker, an FIS timer, explained to me via email that the wand/switch system “is not that accurate and that is the limiting reason that we only time to 0.01 of a second.” In a separate email, David Iverson, who works as a chief of timing for FIS races, noted that “variability in how the wand flexes” and “in the angle at which the switch closes” means it’s very hard to time skiers down to 1/1000th of a second.

Can the FIS do better than this weird wand contraption? Michael Walker thinks so. “For years, we have recommended that we use timing eyes on the start ramp to start time. This would then improve the overall accuracy of the system,” he wrote. “This is the same as the bob/luge track and the process they changed to decades ago.”

A timing eye is an electronic device that creates an invisible start beam through which an athlete passes to start the clock. Sounds like a good contraption to me! Maybe the Maze-Gisin tie will prompt the FIS to replace the wand with the eye.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?