Why Was Australia’s -0.03 Relay Start Not A DQ? A Rules Deep Dive

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.

Manufacturer Recommendations

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.

But this old document references FINA FR 4, and lists the Omega Electronic Timing System with a recommended tolerance of -0.03 seconds.

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.

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sjp1650
1 month ago

Not for relays exchanges, but for final placing…Am I correct that the touchpad error tolerance is in the thousandths digit place and that’s why we have no issue with determining winners based on the nearest hundredth?

Last edited 1 month ago by sjp1650
Josh
Reply to  sjp1650
1 month ago

I think the issue with hundredths vs thousands is actually the construction of the pool (can’t be assured each lane is precisely the same length) vs the sensitivity of the timer. We could easily time people to the thousandths, but it wouldn’t necessarily be fair because they may have not traveled the exact same distance.

Last edited 1 month ago by Josh
Bruh
Reply to  Josh
1 month ago

Hundredth are usually like 2 cm at max finish speed so a thousandth would be in the realm of a couple of mm and that accuracy is near impossible

Last edited 1 month ago by Bruh
M L
Reply to  sjp1650
1 month ago

This is a key question. And how long are the pools with and without the touchpads? Aren’t older pools, at least, built to be 50m across from wall to wall (without touchpads)? And when touchpads are corrugated, is it “50m” from trough to trough, from crest to crest, from trough to crest, or what?

Last edited 1 month ago by M L
BaldingEagle
Reply to  M L
1 month ago

Gotta be sure you touch outside the trough.

I saw it somewhere, but several coaches, including Bottom at UM have said that the Omega system is well below Colorado in quality. Part of the issue is the way those pads are constructed. Omega has switches in the frame behind the slats, while Colorado is a switch essentially across the whole surface of the pad. Colorado just doesn’t have the ability to tie into TV productions (that I know of), and they don’t have an overhead camera. But then again, when your business is basically USA meets (below the national level), HS, and country club meets, who needs all that stuff anyway?

Texan
Reply to  BaldingEagle
1 month ago

I’ve worked extensively with Colorado, Omega, and Daktronics pads. Omega pads are by far the best. Dak probably has the best timer interface. Colorado pads are really solid, but I don’t like the new interface of the system 7. Colorado pads can also float on you. There are people who don’t like the Omega pads as much because they think they are slicker than other pads. Dak probably has the “stickiest” pads. I’ve worked with Omega pads a lot and don’t see how they can be slick, but I’m never competed with them. From a timing and reliability standpoint, you really can’t beat Omega. And Dak pads are by far the most unreliable.

Colorado has been used for televised meets… Read more »

StuartC
Reply to  sjp1650
1 month ago

While the Olympic touchpads are probably brand new, older touch pads actually warp and bend over time so the touchpad error tolerance can be dramatically different btw 2 pads. It’s one main reason why touchpads shouln’t be in the water if swimmers are wearing fins in warmup or doing a set.

Stephen
1 month ago

Why do the Aussie women keep winning

Gogo bibi
Reply to  Stephen
1 month ago

AUS > USA

Big Kicker
Reply to  Gogo bibi
1 month ago

Well this didn’t age well

Irish Ringer
Reply to  Stephen
1 month ago

Titmus, McKeown, and McKeon primary reasons. C1 and C2 secondary.

DLswim
Reply to  Stephen
1 month ago

They are faster.

Coach Mike 1952
1 month ago

This is a very important discussion.

Old Retired Guy
1 month ago

OH. Well then, if this is the case, then let’s go back and give Tim McKee the 1972 Olympic Gold Medal that he earned in the 400 IM. THAT cluster***k rankles me to this very day….

If my facts are correct, and I think they are, the 1972 400 IM event is the *only* race, in *any* timed-contested events in **ANY** Olympic sport, where the winner was declared over the “loser” for a time that was thousandths of a second faster.

No, seriously, give Tim McKee, retroactively, the Gold Medal that he earned in 1972..!!

There….. I Have Spoken.

yinz
Reply to  Old Retired Guy
1 month ago

You certainly meant to say give Cavic gold over Phelps for 2008 Oly (100m fly).
Cavic finished first with soft touch.
Phelps’ sponsor (Omega) decided that the gold medal goes to the guy who first touches with 3kg (~6lb) pressure, not the guy who finishes first.

Last edited 1 month ago by yinz
John
Reply to  yinz
1 month ago

Did Omega “decide” or was that how the touchpad are designed?

yinz
Reply to  John
1 month ago

Judging by all downvotes, a lot of injured egos here. Keep downvoting, but know:
from one member of the 2008 Olympic relay: “We all know who won, but it is not popular [opinion]”. I asked him directly – at a clinic he run for kids – and that was his answer.

Omega designed the touchpad, and put arbitrarily minimal pressure activation value.
Well, some value had to be there, so touchpad would not activate by the water motion.

However, if the required pressure value was close to 0, Cavic would be a gold medal winner.

Imagine a track&field race, where photo finish camera was activated by a sensor 3cm past the finish line. Who would be the… Read more »

TrueNorth71
Reply to  yinz
1 month ago

Sorry, this is just not true. There’s photographic evidence that Phelps finished first.

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/amp/wbna26232965

WahooSwimFan
Reply to  Old Retired Guy
1 month ago

Well consider that before electronic timing, each lane would have 3 timers, and the race would have two place judges. A swimmers time was the middle of the three times, and then place judges would rank the order of finish from seat on each side. A swimmers ultimate place was the average of place by time and place by each judge; so you could actually have a race where the higher place went to a swimmer with a slower time. When electronic timing was first introduced, in some places they did not completely trust the pads/timing so they kept two place judges also – I once lost a race despite the faster electronic time because the place judges saw the… Read more »

Old Retired Guy
Reply to  WahooSwimFan
1 month ago

Nice set of observations on the topic. My swimming days also encompassed the three timers/place judges method of finishing order. So hello, Fellow Old Guy. May you have many more good days in front of you…

TheSwan
1 month ago

Salty yanks in these comments.

Gogo bibi
1 month ago

That doesn’t change the fact that they beat the USA

tea rex
1 month ago

Can humans overrule the timing system if hand is touching but not enough pressure to switch the pad?

yinz
Reply to  tea rex
1 month ago

No, because there is a precedent:

Cavic deserved the gold medal over Phelps for 2008 Oly (100m fly).
Cavic finished first with soft touch.
Phelps’ sponsor (Omega) decided that the gold medal goes to the guy who first touched with ~6lb pressure, and not to the guy who finished 100m first.

Last edited 1 month ago by yinz
Yabo
Reply to  yinz
1 month ago

Yikes

John
Reply to  yinz
1 month ago

Your last name isn’t Cavic by any chance, is it?

Dan
Reply to  John
1 month ago

Probably not, because this is what Cavic said on the subject:

“People, this is the greatest moment of my life. If you ask me, it should be accepted and we should move on. I’ve accepted defeat, and there’s nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been”.

HJones
Reply to  yinz
1 month ago

I still have yet to see an image that definitively shows Cavic touched first. At the very best, it could’ve been a tie.

yinz
Reply to  HJones
1 month ago
The White Whale
Reply to  yinz
1 month ago

I watched the slo-mo of that finish a lot and it always looked like Phelps touched first to me.

Yozhik
1 month ago

Has anybody noticed two exceptional reaction times in American team?
Sims – 1st leg – 0.59 sec.
Ford’s – 4th leg – 0.59 sec
😀

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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