Have you caught a glimpse of what appears to be a toy gun at the Olympics this year? In case you missed its debut at the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver, the traditional starting gun has been replaced with an all electronic version so that athletes have a fair chance at hearing the crack at the same time.
The gun looks nothing like the powder pistol -- a purposeful design choice -- you may be picturing that sends a resounding blast for athletes to shoot off their blocks. Popular Science explains why the changes were made:
It's easy to take for granted just how insanely close some Olympic races are, and how much the minutiae of it all can matter. The perfect example is the traditional starting gun. Seems easy. You pull a trigger and the race starts. Boom. What people don't consider: When a conventional gun goes off, the sound travels to the ears of the closest runner a fraction of a second sooner than the others. That's just enough to matter, and why the latest starting pistol has traded in the mechanical boom for orchestrated, electronic noise.
There's also an ulterior reason for its look. In a post-September 11th world, a gun on its way to a major event is going to raise more than a few TSA eyebrows, even if it's a realistic-looking fake. Rather than deal with that, the e-gun can be transported while still maintaining the general look of a starting gun.
The Atlantic, which recently featured the gun, highlighted an example of how a traditional starting pistol can actually affect athletes' time:
As Peter Hürzeler of OMEGA Timing told me, a conversation with sprinter Michael Johnson at the Sydney Olympics caused him to realize that even with speakers, the speed of sound was still slowing down the farthest athletes. Johnson's reaction time, Hurzeler 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.
Omega describes the gun as "a streamlined, futuristic device composed of a flash gun and sound generation box."
Since 1932, Omega has been the official time-keeper of the Olympic games, evolving its methods as technology improved. Check out Omega's interactive timeline of its Olympic history to see more of these technological advancements here.