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Why don’t sprinters start with a pistol anymore? They’re too fast

The classic starting gun leaves too much margin of error, so London has switch to an electronic beep.

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These runners are using the traditional gun, but their success also doesn’t hang on a fraction of a second. Image: Joe_Focus

In the good old days of cartoons, whenever there was a race involved the characters readied themselves beside the starting gun. Invariably, something went wrong with the gun. A little flag popped out saying “Bang!” or the whole thing exploded, spewing gunpowder everywhere. While today’s Olympic athletes don’t exactly have to worry about that happening, they do have issues with the standard starting pistol. The problem is, they’re just too fast, reports The Atlantic.

The electronic “pistol” of this summer’s Games was designed to overcome an astonishing problem: The speed of sound is too slow for Olympic athletes. That is to say, athletes far away from the starting pistol were delayed by the time it took for the sound to travel to them, and differences so tiny can matter in races in which the margins are so small.

The solution, for a long time, was to have speakers behind wherever the athletes started from. But the sprinters were ignoring that sound. They’re trained to tune out everything but the bang of the gun, so that they don’t false-start. That means that even though the speakers were telling them the gun had gone off, they waited for the “real sound” to reach them. Eve the great Michael Johnson was tripped up by this, starting nearly 300 thousandths of a second after his competitors. And in sprinting, that fraction matters.

This Olympic game features a “silent pistol,” that emits an electronic beep. The official timing company of the Olympics, Omega, says that this beep, played only through speakers behind each lane rather than in two places, will ensure that everyone hears the starting gun at the same time.

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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