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Technology powering the 2022 Commonwealth Games: starting blocks

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As Birmingham prepares for this summer’s Commonwealth Games, we look at some of the inventions that have helped change the sporting world. Here we chart the development of starting blocks from a hole dug in the ground to the high-tech equipment used by sprinters today.

 

When a device has been in existence for seemingly decades and is as much a part of track running as spiked shoes, it is hard to imagine athletics without starting blocks.

Devised almost a hundred years ago out of a desire to increase acceleration from a standing start, starting blocks are now a far more technically advanced piece of equipment.

In 1929 Australian athlete Charlie Booth and his father created a set of wooden T-bar starting blocks. At the time it was common for athletes to turn up to a race with a trowel, so they could dig shallow foot holes. When word got around that Booth had gained an advantage using the blocks he was promptly disqualified for life. However, after a few weeks, the ban was overturned and the rising influence of starting blocks in international athletics had begun.

Today starting blocks are one of the few devices formally required in competitive track athletics and are bound by internationally recognised standards. Typically, the device is made up of two support blocks, one for each foot or prosthetic blade with a bar connected to a base which allows the blocks to be adjusted.

Starting blocks have advanced through the adoption, and adaption, of sophisticated electronics which have allowed race organisers to detect false starts. A patented design of starting blocks by the manufacturer Swiss Timing has the force sensors usually found on the support blocks moved to the rear of the base assembly. The benefit of this change in sensor position is to give a more accurate indication of a false start. This signal is calculated within an electronic processing unit, also located within the base assembly. The unit processes data collected by the force sensor, in conjunction with the race starting signal, to determine the athlete’s reaction time.

The athlete’s reaction time is compared to a predetermined threshold set by the race starting device, to calculate whether an athlete made a false start. This is backed up by a buzzer or light indicator located at the rear of the blocks.

It is clear to see that the rise in the technology behind starting blocks has heavily influenced the role they play in modern athletics. From simple origins helping an athlete to make a fast start, they are now able to determine whether the athlete has jumped the gun by a margin of fractions of a second.

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