When you’re at a track meet there is a lot to look at, not only are there running, jumping and throwing events, there are also volunteers all over the place. I don’t really envy most of these people, I genuinely appreciate that they give their time to make the events possible, but I wouldn’t want to spend my day in the sun raking the long jump pit. I’d get really stressed out flipping over the lap counter, especially in a long race where some contestants get lapped. I am fascinated by the work they do, mundane tasks over and over, essential to the competition. (Editor’s Note: One job is calibrating the javelin, hammer and discus for meets.) You don’t usually see their work when watching a meet on television or the internet – however the volunteers and the job I’m most fascinated with do play a vital role for TV.
Running events are timed by an electronic and photographic system. In a close race the officials analyze a photo taken at the exact finish line and determine who has won the race. Before this system was in use some other method was necessary for determining close races. When I imagine a classic photo of a close race, I imagine a string across the finish line. What I suspect was once a very functional low tech tool to help call close races, is today a television moment.
If you’re at a big track meet, only some events are part of the television broadcast. While race after race has been run relying simply on the electronic finish line technologies, the TV time races are different. Prime time races have sponsors, and those sponsors have their logo printed on a finish line tape. Not a simple string, these wide sturdy finish lines are marketing in action.
When the television broadcast begins, a couple of volunteers are suddenly on duty to hold the finish line tape (a step or two away from the actual finish line where it would interfere with the real electronic timing system and finish line camera). If it’s a windy day the volunteers have an extra challenge. Here are some photos of volunteers successfully and not so successfully in action.
This must be a sprint race. Look at the determination on the volunteer’s face. They are working hard to keep that heavy plastic finish line across the track with the printed side clear and readable to the camera.
For a distance race it’s not necessary to lug that puppy full across the track – a good thing in difficult conditions. You can tell the wind is blowing and they’re working hard to keep the short tape steady. Also, I understand that while it’s exhilarating to be the person breaking the tape it doesn’t feel so great when you hit it. Those arms raised in victory may also be up to help with the sting. Notice the volunteer timing her release of the tape.
Sometimes, even with a short tape the volunteers have problems.
When the logoed finish line ends up on the ground for a high profile race, and not visible for the television camera, it is not good for the sponsor. When problems like that occur, reinforcements are inevitably called in to help.
The next time you see a runner head on coming down the straightaway on her way to victory, remember that the logoed tape she’s about to run into is being held up by people working almost as hard as the runner.