On Wednesday, a contest for a gold medal ended in a tie. This was a first in an Alpine Olympic event, Tina Maze of Slovenia and Dominique Gisin of Switzerland both finished the women’s downhill in 41.57 seconds. But according to Bill Pennington, who’s covering the Sochi Games for the New York Times, three people at the Olympics know which of those two very fast skiers was just a little faster than the other. Pennington joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.
BL: Bill, who are those people?BP: One of them is the head time keeper, and then there’s a backup time keeper — in case the head time keeper loses his way — and then there’s just a computer programmer basically. So, it’s these three guys.
There were other people in the booth, including their boss who maintains, which I somewhat find hard to believe, that he didn’t even look to see who won. The time was there. They record it to a 10,000th of a second, so four digits beyond the decimal point. But they don’t record it that way because the rule is only to the hundredths, and they said, “Oh, this is the rule. This is the way we’ll go.” But of course you know all of us are wondering, “Oh my God, there are three guys walking around with a secret.” That’s quite a secret to have for the rest of your life.
BL: Please explain why the skiing authorities officially time athletes only to the hundredth of a second, even though their equipment is so much more precise.
BP: The simplest answer is that that’s what most other sports do. Track and field only goes to one-hundredths. Most every other sport, other than speed skating, which is indoors and uses a photo-finish system sometimes. And that records it to a more precise measure. There’s a few others, but all the major sports pretty much stop at hundredths.
There’s a philosophical thing, like can they really trust a number when it gets that small? Could a gust of wind or multiple snow flakes stop the timing somehow? Now, the experts say no, but other experts say yes. And what’s amazing to me is that since I’ve written this story, I’ve heard from all these physics professors, and mathematicians, and philosophy professors, and moralists who want to talk about what constitutes victory and what’s wrong with two winners.
It’s almost like they’re trying to recreate the universe or something. It was just a ski race that people happened to tie in, but it’s really launched a big debate.
BL: In this age of data hacking and unnamed sources, will the truth come out?
BP: There’s a whole bunch of races coming up. These same people will be working it. They are kind of marked men, I have to admit. It is certainly true that it’s their job to keep that secret. And their boss who I spoke with said, “Oh, no. We don’t care. This is not a big deal to us.”
BL: Both of these skiers have some experience with this sort of thing, right?
BP: Yeah, amazingly and I really do find this amazing, each of them — Gisin and Maze — their first World Cup win was in a tie. In 2009, Gisin won a downhill, tied with one other woman. In 2002, Maze’s first win was actually a three-way tie. And it was really funny in the press conference after the downhill on Wednesday, Maze was describing it and she said, “Sometimes the finish is even closer than this.” And everybody laughed. How could the finish possibly be closer than a tie? And she said, “Well my first World Cup win, it was a three-way tie.” So, it’s amazing that they can race down the course for almost two minutes and come that close to each other.
BL: Is this tie, this particular well publicized tie, likely to change the way ski racing and outdoor events in general are timed?
BP: This is not Major League Baseball. This is not the NFL. This is a European-based ski organization. They don’t have the kind of standardization that we treat our sports. Things are much more laissez-faire and irregular. They kind of feel like hundredths is enough. The difference between one hundredth in that ski race, if you were one hundredth behind the winners, it’s about eight to 10 inches on the race course. So those two women were probably within a half of inch of each other one way or the other if they were racing side-by-side.
So I think the Europeans kind of view this as, “Well, you know, what’s wrong with two winners? This is working out just fine.” There won’t be a rush to change, I don’t think. I really think they view it as more of an American desire to find one winner. I think they’re almost happy with two winners.