Sprinter Advantage

Sprinter Advantage Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Olympic runners closest to the start gun may get a slight advantage.


Sound and glory at the Olympics. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

At the Olympics, just a few hundredths of a second can mean the difference between victory and defeat—especially in short sprints. New research shows that that difference could depend as much on a runner’s starting position as it does on athletic performance.

University of Alberta researcher Alex Brown and his colleagues analyzed data from men’s 100-meter events at the 2004 Athens Olympics. They found that runners nearest the starter’s gun got an unfair advantage.


We found that in lane one we were seeing significantly faster reaction times.

And further tests revealed that the louder the sound of a starter’s gun, the faster the reaction time.

Brown: We varied the intensity of the “GO” signal from 80 decibels up to 120 decibels. And we found that as we increased that intensity, they were starting faster and faster.

I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Like anything else, sound waves have to travel to get from point A to point B. Because the speed of sound is 760 miles per hour, we don't notice that travel time in most aspects of everyday life. When you're having a conversation with a friend, for example, the sound takes only a few thousandths of a second to get from your friend's mouth to your ear, so it appears to be instantaneous. On the other hand, you can actually notice the delay between seeing distant flashes of lightning and hearing thunder, because thunder is loud enough to be heard from dozens of miles away.

Since sound travels, it's obvious that the closer a runner is to the start gun, the sooner he or she will hear it. And while the sound takes just a dozen or two milliseconds (thousandths of a second) to get from the nearest to the furthest runner, that could potentially matter in the Olympics, where races are often won and lost by tiny fractions of a second. In fact, many athletic organizations, including the Olympics, place loudspeakers right behind each runner's starting position to eliminate any possible advantage. Most top races now use a silent starting gun that sets off a recorded gunshot from these loudspeakers. The Olympics, however, still uses a regular, “loud” gun: one that makes its own noise in addition to triggering the recordings.

The researchers found that the sound of the gun itself negates any benefits of the loudspeakers. Looking at recent Olympics, the researchers found that runners nearest the actual starting pistol had quicker reaction times than those who were furthest away. The advantage was roughly what one would expect if the loudspeakers weren't used at all. That quicker reaction time translates into a slight advantage for those on the inside lanes.

Next, the scientists tested the effects of the start gun on their own runners—including top college sprinters and non-athletes. They confirmed that the closer a runner was to the starting pistol, the quicker he or she was to start the race. Furthermore, they found that louder starting pistols produced shorter reaction times across the board. They suspect that especially loud sounds trigger a “startle reflex” that short-circuits some parts of the nervous system and charges the muscles into immediate action. That implies that runners closer to the start gun have two advantages: the sound not only reaches them sooner, which allows them to react sooner, it's also louder, which produces a more forceful response in their muscles.

Although the data showed that Olympic athletes on the inside lanes got off to a quicker start, it didn't show a relationship between lane position and winning. The most likely reason is that the runners aren't assigned lanes at random: the top-seeded runners start from the center, while the slightly weaker runners are given the extreme inside and outside lanes. So far, it seems, the inside lane hasn't given Olympic athletes enough of an advantage to consistently beat better runners.

Still, the Olympics pride themselves on fairness, and the researchers argue that there's no reason for them to continue using “loud” start guns, when silent guns would eliminate any possible lane advantage. The study also suggests that other athletic competitions, including those in high schools and colleges, should think about whether their starting guns are giving some racers a leg up.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. How does starting closer to the starting gun improve a runner's reaction time?
  2. How do “silent guns” get around this problem?
  3. How did the researchers establish that there was, in fact, an advantage?
  4. Do you think advantages this small should be eliminated in the Olympics, even when there's no evidence that it's changing the outcome of the races? What about in school track meets?

You may want to check out the August 8, 2008, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for this week. This podcast's topics include: the science of magic, the hormone behind the mind-body connection, and the brain chemical that could be responsible for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

For Educators

The simple experiment Reaction Time, from Wonders of Physics, allows students to test their own reaction time using only a ruler.

The interactive activity Sound Wave, from Illuminations, helps students understand the mathematical models used to represent sound.

In the National Geographic News article Ancient Olympians: Weighted Down to Win, read about how swinging hefty hand-held weights gave Greek long-jumpers a competitive advantage.

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