The Evolution of Triathlon Timing and Results

Industry experts uncover the importance and secrets behind timing and results.

In triathlon, timing is everything. When precious seconds could mean the difference between a podium or personal best, accuracy is essential.

But just what goes into the intricacies of recording the data of oftentimes thousands of individual athletes at triathlon events all over the world?

“No one has any clue when it comes to just how difficult it is to organize a successful event, especially in triathlon when you are dealing with such varied distances, terrain, and challenges,” says 21-year XTERRA timing veteran Jim Lovell of JTL Timing.

The first international championship triathlon was timed with a chip in 1998. Since then, event organizers have been fitting athletes with ‘passive’ timing devices that were (and still often are) used to transfer an athlete’s individual identification number to recording stations along the race route.

Passive transponders are typically placed on an athlete’s bib. These units capture electromagnetic energy produced by a nearby exciter—the polyurethane antenna mats placed across strategic points such as the swim finish, bike start/finish, run start and race finish. When excited, the radio-frequency identification (RFID) transponder emits a code picked up by a reader that then returns the time. This makes an excellent solution for high volume events like marathons where disposable chips are more practical.

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Recently, however, the science of timing has become much more active through the use of brands like My Laps (used by Ironman) and Athlinks/ChronoTrack (used by XTERRA). Active transponders contain their own battery, and the transponder sends a signal to a receiving antenna, usually a wire placed on the ground. These devices are far more precise with the detection rate close to 100 percent. Their trasponders are also less bulky, making them easier to install at more frequent intervals along the course. They also have a much wider window of detection (48 feet), allowing for more detailed tracking of movement along a course.

“It’s the same active technology used in the Olympics for all the walking, running, track, triathlon, and winter sports events like speed skating,” says Sportstats president Marc Roy, who has been timing Ironman races for two decades.

“You won’t see a timing mat, you see a timing wire that reads a very high-precision timing chip located on an athlete’s ankle and is within 1/100th of a second in accuracy.”

With this new technology, not only can spectators follow athletes live on a mobile tracker app, but a team of three to six timing officials (the number depends on the venue requirements) can also monitor every athlete’spaceandcoursemovements.

“Someone can complete the entire course correctly, but their pace might go from a seven-minute miles to three-minute mile for a section of the course and that will be a red flag for us,” Roy explains.

“We have systems well in place that we have used and improve upon for years that prevent cheating and 95 percent of the time it’s not cheating, but rather accidental course cutting.”

According to Roy, this new technology was used at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“We’ve got it dialed in to about a four-second delay from athlete to an Android application,” he says. “Participants and spectators get notifications within four seconds of an athlete crossing a timing wire at every timing station along the way.”

What about GPS as a timing solution?

“People think GPS is going to be the next big thing,” Roy says. “But GPS is a long way away from being convenient and inexpensive, because what’s happening is that every person would have to carry a device with a cell phone built in with a sim card and data plan to connect.”

By the Numbers

1/100th
The accuracy, in seconds, for an active timing system

7/100th
The fraction of seconds Josiah Middaugh (USA) officially beat Braden Currie (NZL) at the 2016 XTERRA Pan American Championships

$5,000-7,000
Average cost of an active timing system based on each transpon- der costing $40 to purchase up front, plus an annual fee

$25,000
The cost of lost transponders from athletes accrued by Sportstats in 2015

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