Commentary

Mis-timing lapses

Technology allows us to revisit and change past results. Should we?

Updated: July 19, 2012, 12:48 PM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

Just a second.

Actually, it was 1 2/5 seconds that first raised my eyebrows. Back on June 19, the seven members of the Maryland Racing Commission unanimously decided to change the official time of Secretariat's 1973 Preakness from 1:54 2/5 to 1:53. Experts had long suspected his original time was too slow, but previous appeals had been denied. Enter Leonard Lusky, who handles Secretariat's marketing for owner Penny Chenery. He organized a 3½-hour (unofficial time) presentation, complete with expert witnesses and a breakdown of the race film, that convinced the commissioners that the clocking should have been 1:53, thus giving Big Red the record in all three of his Triple Crown races -- 39 years removed.

[+] EnlargeSecretariat, Ron Turcotte, Preakness Stakes
AP Photo/FileExperts had long suspected that Secretariat's recorded time in the 1973 Preakness was wrong.

My initial reaction was the same as that of Joel Rosenzweig, the president of American Teletimer, which services the timing at 80 horse racing tracks in North America, including all three Triple Crown tracks. "A wrong was righted," says Rosenzweig, who's quick to point out that his company did not time that '73 Preakness -- "We lost the Pimlico account in '69 and got it back in '75."

But the more I mulled it over, the less comfortable I was with the change. I'm good with immediately overturning a decision, like a bad call or a home run, but revisiting an event at a later date the way they did with Secretariat, well it was as if Pandora's box had been opened, and out flew all sorts of possible challenges enabled by technology.

What if someone had decided to count frames to prove that Australian miler John Landy actually broke the four-minute barrier before Roger Bannister did in 1954? (For one thing, we'd probably be seeing less of Sir Roger at the 2012 London Games.)

What if someone digitally recalibrated Bob Beamon's "unbelievable" 29-foot, 2½-inch long jump at the Mexico City Games in 1968, and made it a little more believable?

What if the International Olympic Committee decided to re-examine the last few seconds of the 1972 gold-medal men's basketball game between the U.S. and the USSR, when Doug Collins et al were out-and-out robbed on a timing issue?

What if the do-over went from changing records to changing results? What if the retiming of a 24-second clock in an NBA playoff game showed a player did not get the shot off in time? What if a pitcher was retroactively ruled to have taken more than 12 seconds after he got the ball back from the catcher with the bases empty? (Sorry, Matt Cain, that was not a perfect game -- you took too long on that full count.)

Hell, what if a replay of the 2001 Nathan's hot dog eating contest revealed that Kobayashi had not broken the vaunted 50-hot dog mark because he had regurgitated some of one? (Providing someone wanted to watch it on replay.)

[+] Enlarge100-meter final
AP Photo/USA Track & FieldJeneba Tarmoh (No. 1) and Allyson Felix tied for third in the 100 meters at the Olympic trials.

I passed on my second thoughts to Rosenzweig. "I see what you mean," he says. "We can improve measurements with modern-day technologies, but who decides who and what gets a second look?"

That brought up another point. There was a certain elitism at play in the decision to re-time Secretariat; it was as much about burnishing his legend as it was about setting the record straight. As Rosenzweig put it, "If we change the time for Secretariat, then we should do it for other horses, even if one of them is Boilermaker by Rumandcoke out of Vodkatonic."

The timeline for timing has gone from sundials to mechanical clocks to electronics to digital computers to satellite tracking, and it's continually evolving. "With satellites," says Rosenzweig, "we have the capability to time a horse at every step of a race. We can even measure how far a horse actually ran on the path he took from start to finish line."

But even technology has its limits. A great case in point happened four days after the Preakness was re-run: Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix finished in a dead heat for third in the final of the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Oregon. At stake was a berth on the team for that event, and at first Tarmoh was told that she had finished third. But upon closer examination of the two photos used to determine the order of finish, officials could not distinguish who was third and who was fourth: both their torsos crossed at the same time. Tarmoh and Felix were given three choices: a coin toss, a run-off, or one could cede the spot to the other. Ultimately, and with some anguish and frustration over the way the results were handled, Tarmoh decided to give that spot to her friend; she herself will still go to London as a member of the 4x100 relay team.

The USATF officials may have mishandled the situation, but as Rosenzweig says, "At the end of the day, you have to rely on officials to make the decisions. You just hope they've made the right ones."

The foibles of man, and the limits of the machine, only add to the philosophical dilemma now before us: Should we tinker with history? In the search for an answer, I reached out to Dr. Steven Jefferts, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo. Why him? Well, because Dr. Jefferts and his team are responsible for maintaining the atomic clock, and on June 30 at midnight, they actually gave mankind one more second in order to synchronize the atomic clock with the slightly imperfect clock of the earth -- something they have to do every 18 months.

"I did read about both the Secretariat time and the dead heat in the 100 meters," says Jefferts. "I was particularly fascinated by the 100 meters because there's a deep question of physics involved: Is it physically possible to have a true dead heat? Personally, I think it is possible, and looking at the photos, it certainly looked like one -- at least by the human standards they use to determine order.

"I would have liked to have seen the two women run again, but the results would not have told you who won the first race. Physicists can repeat tests, but that's because atoms do not have emotions.

"As for the new timing of the 1973 Preakness, I must admit that my first reaction was (yawn). Yes, you want to get the time right, but 39 years is an awfully long time to wait before you change something. And the longer you wait, the less reliable the results will be. You can try to calculate time using frames per second, but you don't know if the oscillation is totally accurate. At this late date, it's really only speculation."

So does Jefferts think it's worth going back and changing a time? "The weird thing about time is that you can't replay it. Once the event is over, you can try to reconstruct it, but you won't have all the variables, and the longer you wait, the less accurate you're going to be. I'm not the last word, though. In our business we have an expression: We're often wrong, but we're always certain."

Thank you, Doctor. I am now convinced that Secretariat's time should not have been changed, so convinced that I am feeling guilty. As it turns out, I once was involved in an attempt to change history.

It wasn't a time, per se, but it was two points. For the very first issue of ESPN The Magazine in March of 1998, the editors got a tip that the UConn women's basketball record career scoring total for Nykesha Sales was wrong. The total of 2,178, one better than previous record-holder Kerry Bascom, was a big deal at the time because the injured Sales got the record when Villanova allowed her to make an uncontested layup at the start of a game, after which UConn returned the favor.

Well, we were told that Sales had been mistakenly credited with two points in an earlier game, and, sure enough, the tape of the game revealed that. I was asked to write the story.

UConn in general, and coach Geno Auriemma in particular, cried foul. Despite the story, and the evidence, the Huskies did not change Sales' point total.

Now I'm glad they didn't.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer