How Canada Games ski races are timed to a fraction of a second
Precise timing takes Olympic experience, top technology and a backup
In the high-speed sport of alpine skiing, a single hundredth of a second is often the difference between a podium finish or, as the 2023 Canada Games witnessed, can lead to a tie.
Nearly 200 of the best youth skiers from across Canada have been competing at Crabbe Mountain, northwest of Fredericton, in slalom, giant slalom and super G events. The ski area also hosted mogul competitions last Friday and Saturday.
The Canada Games, being held mostly in Prince Edward Island, have brought world-class technology, course designers and timing officials to New Brunswick, where alpine ski competitions wrap up Thursday.
In the small timing shack by the finish line, Ted Savage is leading a team keeping a close watch on the results. As an official with the International Ski Federation, he's timed sports at 16 Olympic Games, many World Cup races — and now the 2023 Canada Games.
"It's an Olympics-type experience, it's a games experience," he said. "Going in and competing in that type of atmosphere is an extremely valuable thing to do, regardless of where they finish in the results."
Savage, who grew up in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, was a ski racer, which eventually led to a career officiating winter sports.
During Tuesday's races, three ties were recorded, including one for second place in the super G female final, something that's not uncommon.
"By the time they get to the bottom, if they are tied to the same 1/100th, that's how precise this needs to be in order to be fair to the athlete and to say that's what distinguishes one place from another," he said.
How the timing works
In the timing shack, there are two devices that record incredibly precise times of day.
At the starting gate, a skier hears a series of beeps that indicate when to push off. A bar, known as a wand, swings open for the athlete to go, triggering the recording of the start time.
And at the blue finish line, two sets of photo cells — a type of infrared sensor — trigger another recorded time.
The times recorded at the start and finish are the time of day, using a 24-hour clock, when the skier begins and ends a run. They're registered down to four decimal places — a 10/1000th of a second. The finish time is subtracted from the start time to get the time on the course and determine rankings.
Results are pushed online and to display boards at the event venue.
There's also a manual backup in case technology goes awry. Hand timing is recorded with devices and a button. A correction factor is also applied based on a statistical analysis of before and after, to account for any slight human error.
'Lots of energy'
Athletes are well-aware of the potential big impact in trimming a small fraction of time.
The giant slalom course took most athletes between 53 seconds and just over a minute to complete.
One of the techniques: lunging across the finish line with an outstretched hand.
Jonathan Cook, a Team Brunswick skier from Moncton, said every turn counts, especially at a large competition.
"I just tend to not overthink it and just kind of ski and have fun," he said. "I feel that's the best environment for me. I make sure I have a really strong start, push fast out of the gate, some nice turns and good line."
James Budrow, a para skier from Nepean, Ont., completed his second race in his first competitive season after losing his leg in 2020.
"I'm still learning parts of it, trying to find my balance. It's a little icy out there," he said.
"There's lots of energy, it's nice to have all the provinces here."