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.

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 months ago

1948 London Shirley Strickland of Australia was placed 4th in the women’s 200m track, in 1975 a relook at the photo finished and she had actually finished 3rd, She could have claimed the bronze medal but because she had 7 olympic medals she refused saying that the American girl Audrey Patterson could keep the bronze because she wasn’t taking a medal away from somebody who only had one, that’s class!

1 year ago

Well, anyone who knows how to do a -0.03 sec deserves a gold medal already.

1 year ago

The relay start system measures inertia, not contact… hence the -0. 03 “correction”

1 year ago

Really???? We gonna argue about. 03 in this relay. If it was -3.0, sure

1 year ago

SwimSwamWhy on the official website Zac’s reaction time is 0.29? Where are you pulling this -0.03 reaction time?

Reply to  Confused
1 year ago

I see that on the live site as well, but the PDF document of results show the -.03.

Very peculiar…

1 year ago

So basically this was the best relay exchange ever?

He Gets It Done Again
1 year ago

I thought the deal was that the technology measuring when the swimmer leaves the blocks is not accurate to a hundredth of a second, unlike the pads in the water that measure the finish. The block technology has only been scientifically proven to be accurate with in a range of .06 of a second, or in other words + or – .03 of the official readout it gives in the results. So when Rowdy obsesses about a .61 reaction time it really could have been anywhere from .58 to .64

It’s interesting though, in the document you guys link to they say the Seiko system actually IS accurate to .01… Which makes you wonder why we are using the Omega… Read more »

The White Whale
Reply to  He Gets It Done Again
1 year ago

I’m sure it has nothing to do with Omega being a Fina sponsor or anything…

Reply to  He Gets It Done Again
1 year ago

It is not difficult at all to make pressure sensors that are accurate to 0.01s, so I strongly doubt it’s an actual technological limitation.

I think I read this somewhere years ago, but now I have no idea where. Feel free to discount it but it seems plausible to me. I think it’s more of a question of when the foot is no longer pressing down on the block vs. when the toe stops touching the block. i.e. on a start, the balls of the foot are pressing down on the pad and the toes are curled over the front. Since the last part of the body to leave the block is the toe in that case, there could theoretically… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by sven
1 year ago

But the official results link had his reaction time as 0.29?

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 …

Read More »