Phelps Three-Way Tie?

In light of Michael Phelps’ final swim in the 2016 Olympics, I wonder why there was a three-way tie in the 100m Butterfly. After all, this is the Olympics, the most prestigious athletic international competition. There must be a way to differentiate between the world’s three butterfly swimmers, right? They can’t all just be the same! A three way tie may seem statistically improbable, but due to the way swimming is timed, and some interesting construction of pools, ties are very common.

Well, after pondering this thought for a while, I decided to research a little about Olympic swimming and how the timing system works. First, why are all the swimmers’ times recorded to just four significant digits? There comes a point where a digit in an answer is meaningless, or cannot be accurately extracted from input data. Officials in swimming could time down to a thousandths of a second, but there would be no way to accurately ensure that the winner actually won. The tolerance on an Olympic swimming pool according to standards is 3 cm in length in variance per lane, so already, someone might have 3 cm of an advantage over another swimmer down the swimming pool. So why then is the tolerance on pools so great that it does not allow for more accurate timing? Well, the Olympics could construct a pool to a tolerance tighter than 2.39 mm, but it would cost a lot of money, and take a lot of time to ensure the proper length. So, instead of making every pool builder keep an impossibly small tolerance, the sport of swimming only times down to a hundredth of a second.

So after all, Michael Phelps’ three-way tie is not that much of a surprise! Of course, as one of his biggest fans, I secretly hope that he was the fastest of the three! HAHA


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