Chip Timing - What It Does and How it Works
By Alex Sinha
Born about ten years ago, chip timing has rapidly developed into a commonplace supplement to traditional race timing techniques at races all across the world. Used for runners, bikers, tri-athletes, and even skiers, chip timing is both extremely precise and capable of addressing several weaknesses that are inherent to traditional timing methods. For a detailed article on race timing requirements, visit our article on race timing - how it works. You'll notice that some of the difficulties described in that article are handled by Chip Timing.
Chip timing systems require that athletes wear a small, lightweight chip that uniquely identifies them as they cross strategically placed, electronic mats. The chip is typically worn on the shoelace or on an ankle bracelet, depending on the system being used. In its most basic and common form, chip timing electronically handles the task of collecting and processing results at the end of the race. More advanced chip timing setups can protect against cheating, record accurate split times, provide instantaneous race updates, and compensate for slow starts caused by crowded starting areas.
What It Does: Mats At The Finish Line
Every chip timing setup includes timing mats at the finish line. The primary benefits of using finish-line mats are more accurate recording and a less crowded finish area. Chip timing eliminates the problems inherent to manual timing; as such, there will be no mistakes in the results caused by confusing, multiple-chute finishing areas, "bandits" (runners who have not registered) confusing timers, runners wearing the wrong number, or runners who get out of order in the chutes. Also, because the process of matching times to numbers is computerized, human error is minimized, and times can be made available almost instantaneously through the system.
What It Does: Mats At The Start And Finish Lines
In addition to a mat at the finish line, large races will often have a mat at the starting line as well. This mat enables the timing system to determine both the finishing time of the runner as well as the starting time (and a check whether the runner started at all)! And from this, the system can calculate a "net" or "chip" time for each runner.
At large-scale events, where runners start the race in an enormous cluster, it can be several minutes after the starting gun sounds before a runner can actually cross the starting line.
With a chip timing system, and the availability of starting time and finishing time for each runner, a net time can be calculated for each runner. The net time, which is the actual time taken for a runner to go from the start to the finish is calculated by the difference between the time recorded at the finish minus the time recorded at the start. This can make a big difference for many people. At the 2002 Chicago Marathon, for example, it took over eight and a half minutes, on average, for a runner to cross the starting line after the starting gun sounded, and some runners did not cross the starting line until 22 minutes after the official clock had begun ticking. But, since a chip timing system was used, each runner received a net time as well, which recorded the actual time it took for him or her to complete the course.
Awards are generally given on the basis of "gun" time (the time from the starting gun to the time a runner finishes the race), rather than net time because it would be difficult for athletes to compete if they don't know whether the runner that they are racing next to really has a five second advantage on net time because they held back at the start.
For small races, there may be no need for mats at the start, as delays at the starting line are negligible and the difference between gun time and net time is measured in seconds.
What It Does: Mats At The Start, Finish, And Checkpoints
At the largest, best-funded races (because this can get expensive), multiple mats are placed along the course to provide each runner with split times. Since these times are available immediately, they can be posted as they are recorded, allowing fans to track the race as it progresses, often on the Internet. For example, the 2003 Boston Marathon had mats at nine different checkpoints: one every 5K and one at the halfway point and results were posted to a website throughout the race.
Splits are also valuable because they can help limit cheating. Runners with suspicious split times and runners who did not run over one of the intermediate mats, can be identified quickly and easily. The presence of mats at various locations requires that each athlete cross every mat to prove that he or she completed the entire course.
How It Works - The Technical part
Chip timing systems feature two components: a chip that carries a unique identification number, and a number of mats that activate the chip. The chip - along with an energizing coil - is encased within a durable shell, often glass or plastic, which is then housed in another plastic case. The shell is weatherproof, which allows for the chip to be worn in any racing conditions, regardless of temperature or moisture level. Significantly, there are no batteries inside the chip, and it can be reused again and again.
The chip's transponder is passive, and sends no signals until it is placed within the magnetic field created by the special mats. But once within this field, the coil within the chip becomes energized, produces an electric current, and powers the chip's transponder. The transponder sends a signal, reporting its own unique identification number, and this signal is captured by the "receive" antennas in the mat, and then collected by a computer. The mats contain two types of antennas. One type creates the magnetic field, while the other detects the signal emitted by the activated chip. The mats are placed at key locations along the course of a race: the finish, often at the start, and, at larger events, various checkpoints. A battery and some wiring are attached to the mat, providing energy to the "send" antennas, which create a magnetic field. The entire process of activating the chip and recording its signal takes merely a fraction of a second.
Currently there are three major chip timing systems in use:
The oldest and most used in running is the ChampionChip system which is headquartered in the Netherlands. ChampionChips are tied to a runner's shoelaces.
The Winning Time system, by Winning Time USA is the second most popular system in use for running events. The transponder is attached to a bracelet that is worn around the ankle. Because of this feature (wearing the chip on the ankle), the Winning Time system is almost always chosen for multi-sport events where footwear may be changed during the event.
The newcomer to the party is SpeedChip. This system was developed in Korea and used in many large Asian events before arriving in America in 2002.