The 2021 Olympics: Minutes and Milliseconds

Welcome back to Next Week in the Future! My column is back for semester 2, keeping you updated with deep dives into science, maths, and technology.

This week: a double feature on the Olympics, which has destroyed any chance I had at a productive start to the semester. First, the story of Anna Kiesenhofer, the Austrian mathematician who shocked the cycling world by winning more than a minute ahead of the Dutch favourites. Then, a look into Emma McKeon’s tie for first in the heats for the 100m butterfly and why the Olympics declares ties in swimming instead of measuring times to the millisecond.

Minutes

Anna Kiesenhofer was responsible for one of the first highlights of this years’ Olympics – an unexpected gold medal finish in the women’s individual road race on day 2. When Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten crossed the finish line in second place, she had no idea Kiesenhofer had more than a minute ahead of her.

Although a distinguished cyclist in her home nation as the current Austrian time trial champion, Kiesenhofer was not on anyone’s radar as a potential medallist. The Dutch team, including the champions from 2012 and 2016, were the favourites to win. In comparison, Austria hadn’t won cycling gold since the 1896 Games (yes, you’re reading that right), the very first modern Olympics. To add to that, although Kiesenhofer has previously been part of a professional cycling team, she is currently a self-coached amateur. Her day job is as a postdoctoral fellow at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), researching the theory of partial differential equations.

However, in her own words: “On paper, I’m an amateur, but cycling takes up a lot of space in my life… For the last one and a half years, I was completely focused on today.” Kiesenhofer’s path to Tokyo involved having to plan out her own nutrition, training regimen, equipment, and, importantly, the race strategy that proved wildly successful.

“I planned to attack from kilometre zero,” she explained. In cycling, attacking means to accelerate to get ahead of other riders. The cost is losing the advantages of riding with a peloton – riding behind other cyclists can cut air resistance as low as five to ten percent. Not to mention that attacking from the start is no mean feat considering that the race is 137 km. Although a handful of other riders joined her, they eventually fell behind and were caught by the peloton. With the finish line within 41 km, she left her final breakaway companions Omer Shapira (Israel) and Anna Plichta (Poland) behind and remained alone at the head of the race. At that point, she was five minutes ahead of soon-to-be silver medallist van Vleuten.

When van Vleuten crossed the finish line she began to celebrate, apparently under the assumption that she had won the gold. But Kiesenhofer had finished 75 seconds earlier.

Apparently, when Shapira and Plichta were caught by the peloton, some riders – including van Vleuten ­– assumed there were no breakaways left, not realising Kiesenhofer was still ahead of them.

Some cyclists blamed poor communication. Olympic cyclists in the road race aren’t allowed race radios like in some other major competitions. To compensate, official vehicles keep cyclists updated on the time gaps between the peloton and breakaways – crucial information for deciding when to attack. But van Vleuten was not satisfied with their performance, commenting, “When I was alone in front, I had to ask the TV moto person [TV crew] what was happening.”

However, a recent article published on cycling blog The Inner Ring argued that knowing how far Kiesenhofer was ahead would have made no difference to the race’s outcome. According to what is called Chapatte’s Law, it takes about ten kilometres for a pack of riders to catch up to a lone rider one minute ahead. With 41 km to go, when Kiesenhofer became the sole leader in the race, she was five minutes ahead of the peloton. Barring fatigue on her part, this lead would be extremely hard to catch, the blogger argues. Their stance is this: the real factor in the surprise victory was not miscommunication among riders and officials. Instead, Kiesenhofer’s success can be attributed to her insight to attack early and the peloton’s failure to respond to breakaways until it was too late.

The amateur champion from Austria had some fitting words of advice for young cyclists (and certainly equally suited to young scientists and mathematicians) in her post-race press conference. “Don’t trust authority too much.”

“You’re young, you don’t know too much. Then you have some coach, or somebody who says ‘I know this, and you have to do that, and it will work for you.'”

“I started to realise that all those people who say that they know, they actually don’t know… And especially those who say that they know, don’t know.”

Milliseconds

Emma McKeon, now Australia’s most decorated Olympian, has won seven medals in Tokyo. By now, we’re accustomed to seeing her exploits in the pool, including first place in the 100m freestyle, outpacing second-placing Siobhan Haughey by a margin of 0.31 seconds.

But in the 100 m butterfly heats, she finished with a much less comfortable margin, finishing in 55.82 seconds and tying with Yufei Zhang (herself a quadruple medal winner this year). A picture posted on Twitter by Tony Harper (@tone harper) on 24 July 2021 of McKeon apparently touching the pool wall well before Zhang caused a stir on Twitter.

Conspiracy? Far from it. At the Olympics, as a swimmer finishes a race, they stop their own race timer by touching a panel set into the end of their lane. To avoid a false trigger (say, by a wave of water), touchpads only register a force between 1.5 and 2.5 kg. That means too light a touch won’t set off a pad. So, the likely explanation for the photo is that McKeon is indeed touching her pad, but not without force. In any case, McKeon may have been up to 0.01 seconds faster – the timer only shows times up to the second decimal place.

This happened in a heat and McKeon being first wouldn’t have changed anything, but we wonder – what if it had happened in a final?

Once upon a time, it would have been resolved by comparing the times to the nearest 0.001 second (millisecond). The technology that’s currently used to time swimming events at the Olympics is certainly accurate enough – it can measure to the nearest millionth of a second (microsecond). But nowadays, according to the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), the international governing body for water sports, race times can be measured to no more than the nearest 0.01 second.

The reason is that, even with meticulous construction, the lengths of Olympic pool lanes can vary by more than the length that an Olympic swimmer can cover in 0.001 seconds. At that scale even the expansion of concrete at warmer temperatures can matter.

As a result, swimming is noticeably more tie-heavy than other Olympic sports – in 2016 three swimmers including Michael Phelps, tied for second in the men’s 100 m freestyle.

McKeon and Zhang finished their heat in 55.82 seconds, meaning an average speed of about 1.8 metres per second. At that speed, 1 cm of difference in lane length (which is the maximum allowable by FINA) translates to about 0.0056 seconds of difference in time. So, timing any more accurately than 0.01 seconds doesn’t prove anything about who is the faster swimmer. Although tied results may not be the most satisfying outcome from an audience perspective, it is still an accurate reflection of athlete performance.