One question has come up repeatedly after yesterday’s Olympic men’s 4×200 free relay final: why was Zac Incerti‘s relay start – measured by the official timing system at -0.03 seconds – not grounds for a disqualification?
The answer is more complex than you’d think – let’s take a dive into swimming’s rulebook to explain.
Note: if you’re not interested in the minutia of FINA statutes, skip on down to the bottom of this story, where we’ll give the simplified explanation.
Relay Start Rules
On relay takeovers, the swimmer on the blocks must remain “in contact with the starting platform when the preceding swimmer touches the wall,” according to FINA rule SW 2.6.8. Colloquially, that means the swimmer-on-the-block’s feet have to be touching the starting block when the swimmer-in-the-pool’s hand touches the touchpad.
FINA SW 2.6.8 tasks the official at the end of the lane (known as the Inspector of Turns) with calling DQs for false starts. But when automatic timing equipment is in play (like it is in the Olympics), that data “shall be used in accordance with SW 13.1” – which says that automatic timing equipment has precedence over the official’s call.
But that SW 13.1 references FINA’s Facility Rules governing the automatic timing systems, which leads us to…
Automatic Timing Rules
FINA FR 4.6.3 governs how FINA-approved meets should use electronic timing systems. Relay takeovers are to be measured down to the hundredth of a second. But “For the differential in the relays take-off the manufacturer of the device shall be consulted.”
That essentially means that the company that makes the timing system is able to determine the margin of error of the system that will be officially used.
As an aside, this rule also says that overhead video cameras may be used “as a supplement to the automatic system’s judgement of relay take-off.” It’s still not totally clear where video review fits into the official order of authority, but anecdotally, we know from past results that video can at times be used to overturn false-start DQs on appeal. We have not, in contrast, seen any instances where an official didn’t call for a DQ, but a swimmer was later DQ’d based on video footage.
So what does the manufacturer recommend? Omega Timing produces the touchpads and timing system used at the Olympic Games. So far, we haven’t been able to find a full document spelling out the exact specifications of the timing system being used in Tokyo, nor the exact manufacturer recommendations for that timing system.
Assuming the specific tolerance hasn’t shifted with new models of timing equipment, that would mean that any relay exchange slower than -0.03 would be within the range of tolerance spelled out by the manufacturer, and would not be grounds for an automatic disqualification.
The Short Version
Here’s a summary of all the legalese above:
- The timing system overrules the human officials.
- The timing system comes with a manufacturer-recommended range of tolerance, essentially, a margin of error.
- Any relay start electronically measured at -0.03 or slower does not call for an automatic disqualification to overrule the call of the human official.
- Any relay start measured at -0.04 or faster would call for an automatic DQ, with the timing system overruling the human official’s call.
All said and done, Incerti’s -0.03 relay exchange falls (albeit, barely) into the manufacturer-recommended range where automatic timing doesn’t overrule the human officials. Had Incerti been a tick faster, though, his start would have called for an automatic DQ.