Going on the ‘P’ of the PING

You would think starting a track race with a pistol would be a simple thing – but no. It appears that no longer will there be a ‘B’ of the Bang but a ‘P’ of the Ping as a new starting pistol is reportedly to be used at 2012 which was first wielded in anger at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics games. The need for this pistol is to take into account the speed of sound.

When hand timing was used at athletic meetings (it still is at most club meetings) the timekeepers started timing when they saw the puff of smoke from the gun with the bang arriving approximately 0.3s later (if the starter was 100 m away). Quite clearly this can also be a problem for the athlete furthest away from the starter in lane 8 – especially if the race is started on the curve.

Two different methods, “loud gun” and “silent gun”, have been used to start races.For the loud gun method a microphone picks up the guns report and transmits it to the loudspeakers behind the starting blocks. In the silent gun method, there is no sound from the gun. When the trigger is pressed, an electrical signal is transmitted to the loudspeakers which produce a sharp sound - a Ping. This system is used at World Championships and was used at Vancouver 2010. So you would think these two methods would be the same…it appears not.

Research (Julin and Dapena 2003) has compared the reaction times for the start of the 4x100 m track relay at Atlanta 1996 (loud gun) and Athens 2004 (loud gun) and the 1995 World Championships at Göteborg (silent gun). The figure below shows the median reaction times for lanes 1-8 for both Göteborg (open squares) and Atlanta (open circles). First we can see that the further away the athlete was from the starter (even though the loud gun sends the bang to loudspeakers) the slower the reaction time.

This was not the case for the silent gun. The solid red line shows the starting times predicted for Atlanta based on the assumption that the athletes heard the gun through the air and not through the loudspeakers – i.e. calculated from the distance from the gun each athlete was divided by the speed of sound plus the average starting time from Göteborg (0.1445s).

Even though the ‘Bang’ was transmitted through the loudspeakers, the athletes starting times were not similar to those at Göteborg. The starting times actually fit quite well with what would be expected if the athletes heard the time through the air and not the loudspeakers – so the athletes did not react until they heard the gun directly through the air. Similar results were seen when comparing Athens to Göteborg and when comparing different events on the curve.

So keep an ear out for a PING rather than a BANG!

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