Athletes ‘lose out’ over long pause at start

Athletes who are given too long to “get ready” at the start of a race could be unfairly disadvantaged, research suggests.

The length of the pause before the starting gun varies from one event to another and can affect the mindset of participants, say scientists.

Lingering too long on “ready” allows enough time for adrenalin-driven arousal to dissipate, so athletes are less quick off the mark.

Although the effect is measured in milliseconds, it can be enough to alter outcomes in highly competitive sports such as speed skating, the UK-Dutch team claims.

Oxford University psychologist Edwin Dalmaijer said:

In two weeks, at the start of the Speed Skating World Cup in Calgary, Canada, pairs of skaters will compete head to head over several races.

“Their times from all those races will be added together and the lowest total time will win. In these events, the variation in starts between races could add up to enough to knock a skater out of the medal positions.”

The scientists analysed TV coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics 500m speed skating event. By measuring the gap between the R of “ready” and the “bang” that began each race, they obtained highly accurate timings of ready-start intervals.

Co-author Beorn Nijenhuis, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands,a former Olympic speed skater, said: “What we found was that an extra second of interval before the gun made a difference in finishing times of 672 milliseconds in women’s races and 299 milliseconds in men’s races.

"While those times sound pretty short, in the context of elite speed skating, that can be the difference between first and fifth place.”

The scientists, whose findings appear in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, propose introducing an extra step to warn athletes to get themselves prepared.

The “ready” signal would be given only after every competitor assumed the start position. After a fixed half-second interval, the starting gun would then fire.


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