Timing debacle at Schladming


Timing debacle at Schladming{mosimage}The timekeeping debacle of Tuesday night’s World Cup slalom in Schladming, Austria, is only the latest chapter in a running fight between the Austrian federation (which hosts the race) and the International Ski Federation (FIS). At issue is which party the Austrians or the FIS should control the contracts for two services that are essential to race organizing: timing and data processing.

Timing systems for alpine ski racing involve athletes crossing an infra-red beam sent between two photocells. The disruption of the beam causes an impulse to run through a system into computers in the adjacent timing booth, where trained officials monitor the principal timing and backup systems. The data derived from the timing systems is then relayed to various outlets, including the scoreboards and live television feeds.

One the first run of Tuesday’s night’s slalom at Schladming, there were incorrect impulses for the first three competitors: Giorgio Rocca of Italy, Manfred Pranger of Austria and Rainer Schoenfelder of Austria. Problems with the first two times were not apparent to most spectators, but it was clear to everyone that something was wrong when Schoenfelder crossed the line with an impossible 3.57-second lead on the other two racers, (who between them had won three previous slaloms this year).

The crowd of 42,000 fans, which up until then had been boisterous with airhorns, smoke flares and Austrian flags, realized something was wrong and settled into a quiet murmur. Initially confused, Schoenfelder shrugged and then hammed it up for the cameras, making an ‘I guess I’ll take it’ gesture for the cameras. The scoreboard problem was fixed a few racers later, and the first run resumed without apparent incident.

With the second run about to begin, 42,000 fans had little idea that anything was wrong. But with racing set to begin at 8:45 p.m., the FIS World Cup race director Gunther Hujara was not in his usual position near the top of the course, but was instead inside the timing booth at the finish, talking to timing officials and staff members of the Austrian and Italian ski teams.

Three of the Austrians in the shack were Hans Pum (alpine director), Toni Giger (head men’s team coach) and Peter Schroecksnadel (president of the Austrian ski federation). Timing officials wearing black coats with the Siemens logo moved in and out, while the group examined both head-to-head comparisons of race runs as well as rolls of paper printouts listing the times.

The jury decided to use times from the backup systems for Rocca and Pranger. As for Schoenfelder, it appeared that his times were recorded correctly, according to Hujara, but that a mistake was made in the transfer of data to the scoreboard. The Italian ski federation immediately protested the use of backup times, but the jury overruled the protest, telling the Italian team they would have 48 hours to file an appeal with the FIS.

After the meeting concluded, the second run got underway, more than 15 minutes later than scheduled. The starting order was adjusted to reflect the new first-run times of Rocca and Pranger (Rocca was still the fastest, but by a smaller margin, and Pranger was bumped from the runner-up position to fourth place). On the second run, Rocca made a mistake and skied out, while Pranger moved up on his rivals and won the race.

Immediately after the race, timing materials were confiscated for an official FIS investigation. ‘We are not engineers, but we need to check everything, and the investigation will be done and we will find out’ said Hujara. He says that if something is proven to be incorrect, the race results might be thrown out, but he added that he is personally convinced that ‘the people who work here did everything correct.’

Schröcksnadel took pains to point out that it was the Austrian coaches who had raised the red flag. ‘We had four timing systems, for security. The other three were the same time. The first one wasn’t correct. Maybe it was a snowball. I don’t know.’

‘A snowball can happen once’ said Albert Vetter, the owner of Alge timing, whose nine-man team was providing the timing equipment in a joint-venture partnership with Siemens. ‘The problems we had with the first two runners…we don’t know what it was.’

Many on the World Cup feel otherwise, and the perception that timing systems are unreliable and inconsistent is spreading among not just fans and journalists, but also coaches and athletes. ‘It is difficult to say corruption’ says Adriano Illiffe, the manager of the Italian ski team who said that Rocca was upset about having his time changed just minutes before his start. ‘This is incompetence…Two big faults they’ve made, and this fault here in a World Cup race is outrageous. It opens many, many doubts in the whole system.’

Italians want Schladming thrown out; Austrians talk lawsuitsManfred Pranger wins Schladming; Timing errors call race into question

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