Olympic Track and Field Doesn't Use Starting Pistols Because the Speed of Sound Is Too Slow

By Kyle Wagner on at

Did you know the reason that Olympic track and field doesn't use starting pistols anymore is that the runners farthest from the gun were posting demonstrably slower start times. Even with the help of digital speakers. This is crazy.

For a long time, the sound of the gun was pumped in from behind each runner at the same time it fired, but runners would still wait for the sound of the actual gun:

[Michael] Johnson's reaction time, [Peter H├╝rzeler of OMEGA] said, "was 440 thousandths of a second. Normally athletes leave between 130 and 140 thousandths of a second. ... I asked him, why did you have such a bad starting time?" Turned out, Johnson was in the ninth position, and the sound of the gun was reaching him too slowly.

Four tenths of a second is a massive amount of time in a sprint. Which sounds even crazier when you realise that it's caused by the amount of time it takes the bang to go from a gun to an athlete's ears, 20m away on the starting blocks. [The Atlantic]

Image credit: Michael Steele/Getty Images Sport