Switzerland Swim-Off Decided by Thousandths of a Second

Braden Keith
by Braden Keith 12

February 07th, 2023 News

Swimming rules about ties and swim-offs and who advances are conspicuously vague.

We’ve seen some creative examples of determining who will advance in the case of ties. A TCU swimmer beat an LSU swimmer in a rock-paper-scissors battle to advance in the men’s 100 free at the 2013 Art Adamson Invitational. In January 2022, a pair of Tennessee teammates used a reaction game involving a cup to decide who advanced to the top 8 at a USA Swimming Pro Swim Series meet.

But last weekend in Switzerland, we saw a tie-breaker that will seem normal to a certain percentage of global sports fans, but that might trigger some trauma for American swim fans of a certain age.

At the Recontres Genevoises meet in Geneva, Switzerland, Roko Mateljic from Montenegro and Rafael de Sousa Carvalho from the Lancy-Natation club in Switzerland tied in the prelims of the men’s 50 fly in matching times of 28.99. A swim-off was held to determine which of the 14-year-olds would advance to the C-Final, but the two then tied again in 28.69 – at least according to the times on the scoreboard.

When reviewing options, one coach proposed that the times could be taken to more decimal places to determine the winner. Officials agreed, and using a little-known function on many timing systems, they reviewed more digits past the traditional tenths and hundredths.

Mateljic finished in 28.6968 seconds, while De Sousa finished in 28.6909 seconds. That mean s De Sousa was about 6-thousandths of a second faster, which comes out to almost exactly a centimeter of gap – a small, but not imperceptible, difference.

Modern swimming records times, by rule, to the hundredths only. Any further digits, if the particular timing system records them, are truncated (not rounded).

But it hasn’t always been that way. Those rules were changed after the 1972 Olympic Games, when Sweden’s Gunnar Larsson and American Tim McKee touched in matching 4:31.98s in the men’s 400 IM final. Ultimately, officials broke the tie by using thousandths of a second, declaring Larsson the gold medalist by .002 seconds.

50 years ago, timing technology could already go to the thousandths, but now, we accept the hundredths as the standard.

Technology exists to measure to the millionths of a second. Many sports already use timing to the thousandths of the second using lasers and cameras and other similar tech – for example, Luge races are recorded and announced to thousandths of a second. So too is short track speed skating.

Sports like track & field and short track and snowboard cross, where competitors are racing head-to-head, can use cameras to break ties when necessary. Those cameras range in ability, but the highest-end models can go up to 10,000 frames per second (meaning a frame is captured every 0.0001 seconds).

Sometimes even thousandths aren’t enough. At the 2012 US Olympic Trials in track & field, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh tied for the 3rd and final spot in the women’s 100 meters. They had matching times of 11.068 seconds – tying to the thousandth. They were offered the choice of a coin toss or a run-off, but Tramoh ultimately ceded the spot.

As for this weekend’s racing, De Sousa moved up two spots in the final to finished 22nd overall – poetically in a tie with Maxime Theurillat.

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Eric Angle
1 month ago

In the 1996 Olympics, Paul Palmer and Jani Sievinen tied for 8th in prelims (1:49.05) and again (1:48.89) in the swim off, after which Sievinen withdrew.

At swimming speed, a millisecond corresponds to a couple millimeters. I’d guess that one of the reasons swimming isn’t measured to the millisecond is that we aren’t confident that the length of each lane, positions of the starting blocks, thickness of the touch pads, sensitivity of the touch pads when the swimmer touches the wall, etc. are all within a millimeter of each other, that the sound wave from the speakers reaches each swimmer within a millisecond of each other, and so on.

1 month ago

mateljic couldnt have just gotten 28.6969

Tommy Schmitt
1 month ago

Mike Cavic is definitely triggered

1 month ago

Roko Mateljic swims for the club Montreux (city in Switzerland), hence abbreviation MONT. He is not from nor swims for Montenegro ( he is Croatian btw)😀. It would be good to correct the text.

1 month ago

Nerdy point of the day: in timing systems, there is something called measurement uncertainty – or accuracy – which depends on the system and its calibration and just the variability present in all mechanical systems. My guess, unless very recently calibrated in the factory (not likely), they would have been better off flipping a coin. If they have high speed video and see that 1 cm difference, sorry, I stand corrected, but…

X Glide
1 month ago

Thousandths make sense for track because at that speed, 0.01 is noticeably different. In swimming, thousandths will likely eliminate most ties since it is significantly slower. I say keep it at 0.01. Ties make everything more exciting

1 month ago

I did a touchpad test on an Omega timing system, back in 1998. I touched the pads in lanes 5 and 6 at the same time so I could speed up the process (two lanes at a time instead of one). After I was done, I went back to the console and checked the printout: lanes 5 and 6 were tied at the 1-thousandth. I kept that tape for a while, but it’s been lost to the ages.

Virgil Hilts
1 month ago

Tim McKee’s loss of an Olympic gold medal is up there with those lost golds by Rick Demont (1972) and Shirley Babashoff (1976) that I’d always hoped that the IOC would come in fix and award to the deserving recipients (sort of what they did for Jim Thorpe many years later).

I’m glad swimming only goes out to the .01 of a second to award places. It was my understanding they moved away from the .001 second because they knew that every touch pad was different and they couldn’t 100% vouch for its absolute certainty vis-a-vis the other touchpads in the pool (in terms of placement, sensitivity, and positioning).

Reply to  Virgil Hilts
1 month ago

You really don’t want to start re-awarding medals to people who violated anti-doping rules.

Everyone who tests positive for a banned substance has a story, an explanation. And I KNOW y’all don’t want them to start erasing punishments for everyone who has a good story.

It’s funny how black-and-white we feel about doping violations from Russia, China, and other “bad” countries but how willing we are to forgive and excuse our own. USA? USA? USA?

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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