What Happened to Starting Races With Real Pistols?

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When Usain Bolt, Wallace Spearmon and the rest of the field line up for today's 200-meter race, they'll kick off the race not at the fire of a pistol, but a noise triggered by an electronic gun. Did previous Games use actual pistols?

Yes, but they've been scrapped for both safety and fairness. The guns were obviously firing blanks and were often rigged to blow off a puff of smoke so everyone could see. Some of the guns were even sealed shut and would just make a loud bang. In an interview on the BBC radio comedy program "The Now Show," official Olympics starter Alan Bell said he's even used a pistol with bullets stuffed with toilet paper.

(Yes, the Olympics do use an official starter. Bell, a former high jumper who had to retire after an Achilles injury, acts as the chairman of the International Association of Athletics Federations International Starters Panel and made headlines earlier this year for disqualifying Usain Bolt at the world championships.)

In fact, the actual pistols used to start races have recently gotten some flack among British officials. One famous model, the Bruni Olympic .380 BBM, was banned in 2010 because it could be converted to fire live ammunition (other pistols that fire blanks must be brightly colored to avoid any confusion). Traveling with the guns -- and the firing supplies -- could be a hassle in airports. And Bell was even banned from bringing a starting pistol to a race at a local school and instead had to use a loud horn.

So enter the latest innovation for the games, OMEGA Timing's electronic gun. The plastic device doesn't fire at all, but triggers speakers behind each runner. It's also connected to the official timers and can't start without approval by the judges.

But the real issue the new electronic guns have solved is one of fairness. Runners in the lane farthest from the pistol were shown to have slower reaction times than those closest to it. Even wiring the starting blocks with speakers didn't help, since runners were still waiting for the pistol sound. In an interview with The Atlantic, OMEGA Timing official Peter Hürzeler said that U.S. runner Michael Johnson's reaction time was as high as 440 thousandths of a second in the ninth lane, versus the normal 130-140 thousandth of a second due to the lag time in hearing the sound. New Scientist also rounded up research on starting before the 2008 games and found that everything from location to the loudness of the pistol could affect the race.

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August 9, 2012 - 9:58am
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