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RFID Applications For Timing Sports Races

race_trackTimes certainly have changed since the ancient Olympic Games. Held every four years in Olympia, Greece from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD, the games featured events such as chariot racing, sprints, boxing, and wrestling.

When the modern Olympic Games began in Athens in 1896, they featured wrestling, swimming, fencing, gymnastics, athletics, cycling, weightlifting, tennis and shooting. Today the Olympic Games feature approximately 302 events across 28 sports:  the nine original plus a variety of new events from around the world.

The sporting events are not the only things that have changed. Modern technology, such as radio frequency identification (RFID), now plays a big part in the way many sports are conducted.

Simple stopwatches are not enough for timing anymore. RFID timers, as well as other high tech timekeeping devices such as infrared beams and electronic touch pads, are used in events such as the marathon, triathlon, cycling, and others.

And RFID is starting to be used more extensively during the games. As the Olympics became a worldwide international event, better security was needed.

RFID first made its debut at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when it was used for ticketing. RFID chips were embedded in Olympic tickets to facilitate check-in and prevent counterfeiting. Around 3 million spectators, journalists and athletes used the RFID ticketing system.

Using RFID timers during races ensures extreme accuracy in timing. RFID timers are accurate to a millisecond, although usually the times are just published to a hundredth of a second. This is 40 times faster than most people can blink, allowing athletes to win or lose by split seconds. Accuracy in timing is especially important in sprint races like the 100 meter dash, since many races last just over ten seconds.

For timing, RFID tags are attached to each athlete's shoe. According to Stuart Steele, UK & Ireland Agent for RFID Race Timing System Australia, “Traditional timers are now considered LF (Low Frequency) ankle tags, the emerging technology is UHF on the bib or the shoe, single use and disposable. In small to medium races, RFID timing systems and scoring packages are still considered a requirement.”

Timing starts when the electric starting gun goes off. A loudspeaker amplifies the sound from the starting gun so the athletes can start at exactly the same time.

Starting blocks have electronic pressure plates, triggered when pressure is applied as the athlete pushes off. This sends a signal to the timing console. RFID timing also makes it possible to determine false starts.

Studies show that humans react to stimuli after one tenth of a second. The RFID timing system checks to make sure the athletes start at least one tenth of a second after the gun fires. If an athlete starts any earlier, that means that he reacted before the gun fired. If an athlete “jumps the gun,” he can be disqualified.

RFID timers make instant scoring possible. Mats are set at different intervals to track the athlete's progress during the race. And race times are instantly displayed on an electronic scoreboard.

RFID timers also help determine split second wins. A mat located at the finish line records the runner's time. A high-speed digital video camera also records the finish.

RFID timing varies from event to event, depending on the specific needs of the sport or event, as well as distance or weather considerations. RFID timers used in the Winter Olympics vary greatly from ones used in the Summer Olympics because of the differences in temperature.

In a marathon race, because of the large number of competitors, it's impossible for everyone to leave the starting line at the same time.  In this case, RFID keeps track of each runner's time individually.

Steele continues, “It boils down to the management of athlete information and the ability to track participants around the course. A race number at a race is a unique occurrence so it makes sense to use RFID, coupled with its medium range read distances. It is an unobtrusive way of capturing an athlete passing. It's important that we factor in the information that we need during a race: the location and the time.”

In case of technical issues, there are usually up to four backup systems which start automatically when the equipment fails.

These RFID tags are not only accurate but also secure and difficult to counterfeit.

Steele said, “(The tags are) unique and not possible to copy very easily, every system is prone to cheating and fraud, however, the RFID coupled with camera technology can identify people in the range and demonstrate that people are in the range by camera and photography. Cheating is actually quite rare however the inadvertent triggering of the system does happen, causing confusion on the finish line. Ultimately it's all about the data management.”


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