Starting blocks have been used since 1880 and were the invention of the American Charles Sherrill. He dug small holes in the track with a spade. The track at this time was not a modern mondo or tartan surface, but made of cinders. Sherrill placed both feet into the holes and pushed off to start. Before this starts were made standing up.
Between 1928 and 1929 the US coaches George Breshnahan and William Tuttle developed the kind of starting blocks we use today. Since 1937 starting blocks have been approved by the IAAF. Until the ‘50s a spade was part of a sprinter’s regular kit. Today starting blocks are used for the sprint events up to 400m.
In 1938 the wind gauge operator was introduced to all running events as well as for long and triple jump and for pole vault. Since then records are only valid if the tail wind does not exceed 2 metres per second.
In the 1920s experiments with electronic clocks began. Since 1977 all records are only accepted if they have been timed by an electronic clock. From the first stop watches in the 1920s to today’s modern electronic timing devices is nearly half a century.
Since 1 January 1977 the IAAF only accepts world records if they have been timed electronically. With electronic timing devices, problems caused by hand stopped times no longer existed. Now all times are measured and there are no inaccuracies through different reaction times of race officials.
The starter activates the timing mechanism by firing the starting gun. Apart from the visual signal : the smoke from the gun barrel and the acoustic signal of the shot, there is also a digital signal which is given through an impulse to a computer which activates the timing measurement. When the athlete crosses the finish line a photo-cell records the time.
Probably everyone knows from schooldays how to start a race : on your marks – get set - go are the magical words of the starter. At international competitions the start command is given in the language of the host country. The starter still gives the starting command and not a computer voice.
Since 1896 the starting shot has been given by a pistol. Today the pistol is wired to the timer and the electronic timing device is automatically activated when the shot is fired.
The starter usually has a microphone. Every athlete has a loud speaker in their starting blocks so no-one is at a disadvantage, whichever their lane draw.
Photo-finish cameras were first used at the 1932 Olympic Games. The photo-finish allows the documentation of a millisecond. That is why a winner can be found from the closest of finishes which may not be discernible to the human eye.
Therefore a correct and fair decision can always been made.