Every four years, the world unites in a celebration of unity through diversity and a show of unprecedented athletic ability. In 2012, the games kicked off in a new way: with a starting pistol. As a race timer, the concept of a starting pistol is nothing new to you; after all, gun timing has been the standard for world record times for many years. However, with the development of RFID timing systems, timers typically set up a gun start as well as chip timing for ease of use and accuracy.
To those just getting into timing, there are two types of timing commonly used in endurance events: Chip timing (which IPICO technology uses) and gun timing. It’s important to understand the difference in the two because, depending on the number of participants in the race and the runners’ initial position at the start, the two race results could vary by mere seconds, or be considerably off by minutes.
Race chip timing systems use RFID transponder chips to precisely and accurately measure racers’ times. Race participants wear the RFID tags during the race. Depending on the type of technology (for IPICO, that’s Dual Frequency or UHF) the tags can be worn in different places, but they range from shoelace tags to ankle bracelets, to the more common disposable race bibs with a UHF RFID tag.
Chip timing is able to precisely measure race results by registering runners’ race chips as they cross the antenna—the timing mats or RFID timing lines located throughout the race course. Runners’ individual clocks starts as soon as they pass over the starting line mats and ends as they cross the mats at the finish line. Larger races will have mats or lines at checkpoints throughout the race, giving race organizers and race timers the ability to measure split times.
As a runner crosses the RFID timing mat, the antenna within the mat emits an electromagnetic wave energizing the RFID chip, which then responds to a unique identification number associated with the runner’s race bib number. An RFID reader, like the Super Elite reader or TUHF reader, interprets and sends the information to your race timing software.
The traditionally sanctioned method of timing races, the initial pistol shot starts the race clock for everyone. When Usain Bolt broke the World Record at the 2008 Beijing Games, and again in London in 2012, his record was based off his gun time and camera time.
While this is the standard, gun timing has come under scrutiny for its inaccuracy. In fact, until the recent transition to toy guns, gun timing was believed to give runners in the outside lanes the advantage.
The reasoning behind sticking to this inaccurate timing method comes down to upholding the integrity of competition. The individual at the head of the pack needs to be perceived as being in first place so that competitors can strategically pace themselves and set up a final kick at the end. Additionally, the runner in first needs to be able to protect his or her position at the front.
How does timer choice affect the results?
In smaller races, the difference in chip time and gun time is minimal, but for world record races, every millisecond counts. Chip timing is preferred in larger races, like the Tokyo Marathon, because it may take up to ten minutes before a participant actually crosses the starting line. Although elite athletes are commonly placed at the front of the pack to avoid having to work their way through crowds, chip timing provides an accurate race result regardless of starting position, age or gender. Chip timing has also been credited with reducing cheating, as racers must cross all the checkpoints.
Even though RFID chip timing is more accurate and precise technologically, gun timing still has a place in racing, and it’s now the norm to employ both systems simultaneously.