BRITT — Timed events at track and field meets have always started when the official starter pulls the trigger of a starting pistol.
The sound sends runners and timing devices in motion. That hasn’t changed but about everything from that point on has.
The days of a finish line crew standing on a set of stairs holding stopwatches are over. Stopwatches have been replaced by camera lenses and computer-driven electronic timers.
In a typical race these days, the participants are given a stick-on number which is placed on the left hip of their uniform shorts or on their leg. When the race is completed the camera lenses and computer software record the runner’s number. The number is matched with the time and sorts out the order of finish.
But it doesn’t stop there. From the instant the time and place are figured, the results of the race can go immediately to the scoreboard and to a website.
If track officials have a question about results, a video, which captures 1,000 frames per second, can be reviewed and action stopped as the race is sorted out. But it seldom comes to that as the event time is recorded at thousands of a second.
“It’s a system that was first introduced at the 1996 Olympic Games,” said Bruce Whiting, owner of BWTF Enterprises of White Bear Lake, Minnesota.
And while it was cutting edge technology at that time, it has trickled down to the collegiate and high school levels. Whiting said the Finish Linx systems, with various options, have been sold and set up across North Iowa.
“About eight years ago, the Iowa High School Athletic Association said that all facilities that hosted district track meets had to have automatic timing devices,” said Whiting. “The problem with that was that at the time they had 34 district track meets and only about 17 automatic systems.”
Whiting said that systems have been sold and installed at Forest City, Britt, Lake Mills, Garner-Hayfield-Ventura and Northwood-Kensett.
“The options that come with the system are the big thing,” Whiting said. “From real-time results and scoring, which features the athlete’s names, lane and time, to the handling of results. It speeds everything up.”
Whiting said the systems range in price from the low end at $7,500 to the high end at $35,000.
At Forest City, where the system is used at the Waldorf University track, two cameras were purchased as college rules allow for competition to be wind-aided. Competitors can run both north to south and south to north.
“The benefits are huge,” said Forest City High School Activities Director Brad Jones. “You don’t have to get as many workers for a meet, the times are more precise and it speeds up a track meet. One of the keys is getting someone who understands operating it.”
Jones said the system is like everything else connected to technology. “It’s great when it all works,” he said with a grin. “And very frustrating when it doesn’t. We have a lot of man hours into it but do have some people who know how to operate it all.”
West Hancock High School girls track coach Mark Sanger said the systems bring consistency.
“It’s comparable to what we have when we compete at the state track meet,” he said. “The systems are becoming quite common. You see them a lot at different meets.”
The Eagles coach said he is pleased with West Hancock system.
“It takes some work to figure out how to run it,” said Sanger. “It takes a little work to work out the glitches, but I like it.”
Sanger said a hand-held stop watch presents opportunity for inconsistencies, which doesn’t happen with the electronic timing system.
“The other thing is that if there’s any question at all,” said Sanger, “you can go back to the camera and take a look.”