The Winter Olympics are just around the corner and, although the games date back to ancient times, one piece of modern technology has completely changed the way many athletes compete for glory. On January 16, 1936, the first photo-finish camera was installed at the Hialeah Park Race Track in Florida. While it was initially intended to determine the winners in horse racing, the use of this tech has expanded to other high-speed events including many of those at the Olympic games and is often pivotal in determining the difference between a silver and a gold medal.
High-speed camera technology involves capturing a series of photos - thousand per second! - at the instant that competitors cross the finish line. Interestingly, these photos are only a few pixels wide. Ever wonder why the backgrounds of the images are usually white, unlike the actual track? The cameras are painstakingly positioned to capture only the width of the finish line, oftentimes painted white, and reveal the entire moment once a computer stitches them into a composite image.
The precision of this process means that the difference between winning and losing is often only a matter of milliseconds. Despite the fact that photo finish technology has meant a complete reinvention of the way athletes train, there are still times when even the fastest camera can't dispute an absolute dead heat.
We’re looking forward to the Sochi Olympics even more now that we understand the science and technology behind the photo finish! We’ll have even more information on how STEM impacts the Olympics in an upcoming blog post, too. Are you interested in STEM and the Olympics? Tell us in a comment what you’re looking forward to seeing and learning when the Olympics kick off on February 7!