Phelps-Cavic Reconsidered

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 26 2008 10:56 AM

Phelps-Cavic Reconsidered

Yesterday I asked whether Michael Phelps lost to Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly final at the Olympics. I took a pretty good pounding in the Fray .

Looks like I deserve it.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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The reason I looked back at Phelps-Cavic this weekend is that Omega finally released its pictures of the finish. Because Omega is the official timekeeper and its pictures had previously been withheld, I attributed great importance to them. And the company's characterization of the pictures as proving Phelps won was total garbage.

As many of you point out, the fact that these pictures prove nothing proves nothing, since we had better pictures from underwater to begin with. I'd seen the underwater shots on TV, but I hadn't looked at them closely on the Web.  Look at the sequence:

A closeup of Cavic's fingers , cropped from the preceding photo (No. 5):

Phelps has clearly touched at this point. Has Cavic touched? His left middle finger is bent back. But if you look at the first of these three photos (No. 4), you can see that the finger is also bent back slightly as he's approaching.

My eye says the finger isn't touching yet. But my eye, as a judge of Olympic photo finishes, sucks. So here are two ways of resolving the question.

1. Do a CSI-style 3-D analysis of photo No. 6, the close-up. See if you can assess the height of Cavic's fingers relative to the cross on the wall. Assuming the fingers are pretty well below the top of the cross, case closed.

2. Calculate the delay between touch and pad compression using the speed of the race. If the speed is fast enough that the delay can't equal one one-hundredth of a second, case closed. There's already a Fray thread pursuing this calculation.

One fascinating thing in underwater photo No. 5: Even if Cavic is touching, you can see that Phelps is touching harder. Theoretically, thanks to the touch pad, that could be enough to win him the race, even if the touches were virtually simultaneous.