Science of the Summer Olympics: measuring a champion

Usain Bolt off the blocks by Nick J Webb, on FlickrAs Official Time-Keeper of the 2012 Olympic Games, Omega’s high-tech timing devices have come a long way since the 1932 games in L.A. where athletes were timed to the nearest one-tenth of a second. The company brought thirty “official” stopwatches to those games to be used in all timed events. (Until then, timekeepers brought their own!) The high-tech innovation of the day was being able to time “splits” during races—something you can now do easily with a smartphone app. Still, much controversy surrounded the timing activities and a backup system finally determined the winner of the 100-meter duel between Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalf, both running for the U.S.

Science of the Summer Olympics: Measuring a Champion gives insights into the accuracy and precision of high-tech timing devices that are still supported by backup systems. Consider using this video at the beginning of the year as you remind students of the importance of accurate measurements in investigations and using instruments with precision.

The series is available cost-free on and Use the link below to download the lesson plans in a format you can edit to customize for your situation. And if you had to make significant changes to a lesson, we’d love to see what you did differently, as well as why you made the changes. Leave a comment, and we’ll get in touch with you with submission information. We look forward to hearing from you!

–Judy Elgin Jensen

Image of Usain Bolt coming off the blocks courtesy of Nick J. Webb.


In “Measuring a Champion,” Dr. Linda Milor, an electrical engineer at Georgia Institute of Technology, explains modern timekeeping devices in terms of accuracy and precision. The video also highlights how such devices and the technologies associated with them are used for a variety of timed Olympic events, including track and field, swimming, and cycling.

Lesson plans

Two versions of the lesson plans help students build background and develop questions they can explore regarding precision and accuracy. Both include strategies to support students in their own quest for answers and strategies for a more focused approach that helps all students participate in hands-on inquiry.

SOTSO: Measuring a Champion models how students might investigate a question about the accuracy and precision of timing devices.

SOTSO: Measuring a Champion, An Engineering Perspective models how students might evaluate the accuracy and precision of various tools used to time an event.

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