13 February, 2014

On longer jumps

How many times haven’t we seen one of the favourites miss out on the important competition of the year by fouling two jumps in the qualifiers and then jumping a third “conservative” one which lands him just outside the qualifying places. The great J. Owens would have been eliminated in Berlin hadn’t L. Long, his German “opponent”, advised him to back his marks by a good half metre. 

Luz Long and Jesse Owens during the Berlin Olympics

Bob Beamon had also risked elimination in Mexico after two fouls. Fortunately for the history of athletics he managed to get his nervousness under control and obtain qualification.

The problem comes from the fact that we are not simply asking long and triple jumpers to jump as far as they can and then simply measure their jump. The rules add an extra difficulty: the jump is measured from a fixed line. As a consequence, the jumpers try to come as close as possible to this line and, as a result, they often step over it, which leads to an invalid jump. At this point I cannot refrain from mentioning an absurdity of the rules: the national and international rules are not always identical. In the case of long jump this has hindered the progression of the world record. In fact while, according to the IAAF rules, a jump is invalid when an athlete touches the ground beyond the take-off line (something controlled by the plasticine indicator) the american rules are more basic and do not allow the athlete’s foot to overshoot the take-off line. If such a thing occurs the jump is invalidated even if there is no mark on the plasticine indicator. C. Lewis was deprived of a record around 9.15 m because of this americano-centric peculiarity.

So, what we are asking is that athletes who run at 10 m/s to count their steps with centimetric precision so as to jump as close as possible to the take-off line. This was good for the Olympic Games of my ancestors and perhaps the simplest way to stage competitions all the way up to the modern “electronic” era. But today, keeping these archaic rules is just not allowing two of the noblest field disciplines to blossom. For many years now we are accustomed, at least for major championships (Olympic, World and Continental) to have a camera focused on the take-off board giving the precise distance of the tip of the athlete’s foot to the take-off line. (Current technology allows measurements of at least millimetric precision). And this is a distance that the athlete has indeed jumped. Wouldn’t it then be fair to add it to the length measured beyond the take-off line? My answer to this is an unambiguous “yes”. 

So, here is my proposal. Replace the 20 cm take-off board by a 60 cm one. In this way the jumpers will not worry excessively about calibrating their run-up. It suffices to take off from the board in order to have the distance to the take-off line measured. If they take off before the board they still get 60 cm added to their jump. It goes without saying that if they foul their jump is invalid, but with a 60 cm take-off board and the real length of the jump measured, it would be really a rare accident to have a jumper foul. No need for plasticine in this case. One can use the simpler, american, rules and the athlete can be convinced that he did indeed foul by inspecting the video on the judge’s iPad. 

While all this is perfectly feasible as far as major competitions are concerned, it is not clear whether for minor ones this technology-based jump measurement is easy to implement. Juilland in his book suggests another possibility: that the take-off board be covered by a substance allowing the athlete’s foot mark to persists for a time sufficient for measurement. Perhaps this is easier than a video-based measurement. Still one has to study its feasibility and the related costs. Finally for local competitions the old, i.e. the existing, rules could just apply. This would be a further incentive for jumpers to improve their marks  and have access to higher level competitions which would offer them the bonus of a realistic measurement of jump length.

What is the probability of acceptance of a proposal for an exact measurement of the athlete’s jump? Unfortunately, exactly equal to the one of the proposal related to wind speeds and on throwing circles.

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