Sliding down the icy side of a mountain on steel runners, racers in the bobsled, luge and skeleton events reach some of the highest speeds of any Olympic Winter Games competitors—up to 130-145 kilometers per hour (80-90 miles per hour). Since winners are often decided by mere milliseconds, the timing system for these events must be highly accurate and consistent.
That won't be a problem at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Thanks to experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the timing system for the state-of-the-art runs at Utah Olympic Park has been calibrated against national time standards. NIST also loaned special equipment to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee so that the timing systems can be recalibrated shortly before the opening ceremonies on Feb. 8, 2002.
The calibration process uses electronically controlled shutters—activated by Global Positioning Satellite signals—to simulate a racer breaking the infrared light beams at the start and finish lines. The track timer's count is compared to the elapsed time measured by electronic systems that are directly traceable to the NIST atomic time scale (including the NIST-F1 cesium fountain atomic clock in Boulder, Colo.). Results indicate that the Utah Olympic Park timing system can achieve an accuracy of better than plus-or-minus half a millisecond.