Technology Was Plentiful at Boston Marathon

FRAMINGHAM (04/19/2000) - When Fatuma Roba's foot slammed down on the finish mat in the Boston Marathon Monday, a computer chip laced onto her sneaker recorded her finish time as exactly the same time as Irina Bogacheva's. So judges turned to videotape to conclude that Bogacheva's torso crossed the finish mat first, giving Bogacheva the second-place win.

In fact, the same thing happened among the top three finishers in both the men's and women's races.

Thus, although the marathon's organizer, The Boston Athletic Association (BAA), used the most up-to-date technology, the human eye decided the day's dramatic finishes in the 104th running of the marathon.

Technology sponsors of the race conceded that the technology isn't there yet to measure which part of a runner's body crosses the finish line first, but noted that the chips provided family members, the media and doctors with quick access to information on the runners along the way.

"That could not have come together without the Internet services we provided," said Jonathan Cohen, spokesman for AppliedTheory, which with Cisco Systems Inc. provided the Internet connectivity that allowed runners' whereabouts to be tracked during the race.

The BAA has used computer chips to time runners since 1996, when the race attracted a record-high 38,000 entrants. The chip, manufactured by ChampionChip in the Netherlands, was first used in a major race in the Berlin Marathon in 1994.

This year, there were 17,813 runners and 65 entrants in the wheelchair division and handcycle exhibition. Each was assigned a black chip that corresponded to his bib number. Then, as a participant passed over one of the many antenna mats located along the race route, the chip was activated and sent its unique identification number to an antenna in the mat. That information was then sent via modem to ChampionChip's "Yellow Boxes" located nearby, which deciphered the signal and sent the information through the marathon's intranet to various sites along the route, such as family and media access.

Once verified, the information was routed to a data server at AppliedTheory's Web-hosting facility in Syracuse, N.Y., and made available on the marathon's Web site.

The ChampionChip system, with a 4-meter-wide mat, can score more than 1,500 athletes per minute without missing anyone, according to the manufacturer.

The basis for the ChampionChip timing system is the high-frequency-identification system (TIRIS) from Texas Instruments.

The chips also stored medical information about the entrant, which was accessible on the marathon's intranet and made available at all the medical kiosks. Each time a runner came in for medical treatment, his visit and vital statistics were available on the intranet for family and friends to view at spectator kiosks.

For the most part, the data transmission and access went smoothly, Cohen said, though he did not have statistics complete yesterday. No independent agencies monitored the Web site traffic to confirm his assessment.

Marathon officials, on their Web site, did say there was a problem with the transmission of data at the 15 kilometer mark, but information for that marker was not available.

Overall, Cohen said, data transmission went smoothly, and except for a few human errors, the dozen or so AppliedTheory and hundreds of BAA volunteers kept the data flowing uninterrupted to the Internet and other media outlets that relied on the AppliedTheory Web site for results.

"The numbers of errors are in 100ths of a percent," said Cohen. "In one case, someone's chip must have fallen off but they still got their time because it was one of the leaders."

BAA officials didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

As for the runners, using a chip was no big deal, but some apparently got confused as to which chip to wear. Besides the black chip, which runners had to turn in after the race, they could purchase a reusable "commemorative" chip that they then had to have programmed to match their bib number.

"I know that there were a few complications with some people's chips not being registered," said Bradford Washburn, 37, an AppliedTheory sales manager from Norfolk, Mass., who ran the marathon.

Washburn was responsible for the alliance between AppliedTheory and the BAA.

He had already run the marathon twice when he became a district sales manager at AppliedTheory 10 months ago. Washburn approached company management when he discovered the BAA was looking for sponsors.

AppliedTheory provided services and some money to be recognized as a sponsor.

The chips were no problem, Washburn said, because once on, they were not likely to fall off.

"You set it in there and you tie it in pretty tight," Washburn said.

As a runner Monday, Washburn said the race administration was easy to deal with.

"I ran with some people that were from out of town, from Los Angeles. They commented after . . . that the BAA, the organization of the whole thing, was the smoothest by far."

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