Gun Versus Chip Timing – Is it First or Fastest?

Below is a blog by USATF Associate Director of Marketing and Long
Distance Running Programs, Jim Estes, on the issue of how USATF
determines the winners of road races. In two different October
marathons – including most prominently the Nike Women’s Marathon – the
official order of finish was made a bit unclear by a disparity between
order of finish and runners’ “chip times.”USATF has received several
emails and calls from runners, fans and the media about these
situations. In his blog, Estes explains the rationale for USATF and
IAAF rules, sorting through the philosophies behind the nature of
competition and the definition of victory.

FIRST TO THE FINISH

Perhaps
the quality about competitive running that people most love is its
purity: the first person to the finish wins. Normally, the first to the
finish has the fastest time. Simple enough – right?

On
October 19 at the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco, that purity
was muddled a bit when it was determined that the first person to the
finish line wasn’t actually the fastest person in the race: a woman who
had started with the “pack”, in an official gun start 20 minutes later,
ran a time 11 minutes faster than the person who had won the “elite”
race. Race officials didn’t know it until the “chip times” – the times
as recorded by electronic chips in each competitors’ shoes – revealed
it to be the case.

This raises an important
philosophical question: In any given race, who should be considered the
winner? Is it the first person across the line, or the fastest person
in the race? How do you define victory?

In the
case of the Nike Women’s Marathon, there were separate gun starts. The
“elite” women started first, followed by the rest of the field 20
minutes later. That means, technically speaking, the “elite” winner,
Nora Colligan, and the fastest woman from the second start, Arien
O’Connell, were in two separate races. They never got a chance to
compete against each other.

USATF and IAAF rules
about victory are clear: the first person to finish wins. In order to
be able to manage their large fields, races the size of the Nike
Women’s Marathon and other major events have to make the best judgment
call they can about starting separate groups of runners. Chips are used
primarily by race directors to give “mid-pack” runners who start
farther back a true sense of their finishing time, and also to prevent
race fraud. In their sign-up information and race rules, event
directors state that placement is determined by order of finish, not
chip time.

Rules are meant to be applied to every
race, regardless of circumstance. Part of the public outcry surrounding
the results in San Francisco was due to the fact that Ms. O’Connell ran
a time that was a full 11 minutes faster than the “elites.” If Ms.
O’Connell’s time had been only 1 second faster than the “elite” winner,
would it still have been fair to award her the victory, since Ms.
Colligan never got a chance to race Ms. O’Connell? Remember, they
didn’t even start at the same time and weren’t in the “same race.” Who
knows, if they had started together and raced each other, maybe Ms.
Colligan would have run 12 minutes faster. Maybe Ms. O’Connell would
have run even faster than her 12-minute PR. There is no way of knowing.

Let’s
take it a step further, to a regional race scenario, and let’s put you
in the middle of it. You’re training for a big race in your Midwestern
state, with one to two thousand runners. On race day you take a place
at the front of the starting line. When the gun fires, you take off,
crossing the chip-timing mat and activating your ‘chip time’ clock.

Over
the course of the first mile, you trade a surge or two with your local
rival but break away early and continue to press the pace as much as
necessary to stay in front. By half way, you’re a minute up, cruising,
knowing that you’re not going to run your fastest time but already
thinking about where you’re going to put your trophy. Going into the
last mile you look back and notice another runner about 100 meters
back. You pick your pace up as much as you can, and as you approach the
finish, you check one more time to see that you’ve held him off. You
finish 30 meters in front of second place, celebrating as you cross the
line in 20:00. The local TV station captures the moment and interviews
you about how it feels to win.

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At the awards
they announce that the runner who finished behind you started 15
seconds later – farther back in the starting-line pack – and had a
chip-time of 19:57. He, not you, is declared the winner.

At the risk of sounding too 21st-century,
both Ms. O’Connell and Ms. Colligan were “winners” in San Francisco, as
they both received first-place prizes. One way to avoid these messy
situations is not to have separate starts. Another would be for a race
to clearly state its definition of “elite” and to perhaps expand the
definition of the word so more runners are considered “elite” in races
that have separate starts.

By working with race
directors to establish “best practices” to avoid situations like the
one that occurred in San Francisco, USATF can play a key role in
helping to prevent these types of conundrums. What happened was no
one’s fault: nobody, including Ms. O’Connell, knew she was going to run
as fast as she did. But we can all learn from what happened and adjust
the way races conduct their starts and organize their prize structure.

Anybody
who has watched an Olympic or World Championship distance race
understands that distance running isn’t always about who runs the
fastest. It is the act of competing against other runners, responding
to their tactics, and coming out the victor. We must do everything we
can to ensure that the definition of victory is clear and fair. And
pure.

Jim Estes is Associate Director, Marketing and Long Distance Running Programs for USA Track & Field.

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