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Keeping Track of Runners

All L.A. Marathon entrants will wear computer chips on their shoes to accurately record times and discourage potential cheaters.

February 27, 1996|NONA YATES | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

If you're thinking of impressing your friends by shaving a few minutes off your time in the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday, think again. Big Brother will be bigfooting the runners in this year's race.

For the first time in a major U.S. marathon, runners will be wearing computer chips on their shoes that will automatically track their race times.

The German-designed device, called the Real Time Champion Chip, will be laced to runners' shoes and transmit a signal at various checkpoints in the race. Officials can then determine not only an entrant's time, but that the runner has covered the entire route.

About the size of a half dollar and weighing about as much as a dime--"It looks like a tiddlywink," said marathon spokeswoman Kimberley Brown--the chip provides a very precise timing system, particularly important in an event expected to draw 19,000 runners.

In a big race, entrants can be as much as 15 minutes from the line when the starting gun goes off, said William Burke, president of the City of Los Angeles Marathon. With the chip attached to each individual's shoe, a runner's race time will start and finish precisely at the moment he or she passes the start and finish checkpoints.

"Your time starts when you cross the start line," Burke said. "It gives you extraordinarily accurate timing."

He says that the chip also will help eliminate cheating.

"Like all major marathons, we have had our share of people who want to jump in the race and win and are suspect on their completion of the race," he said.

Before, a primary way to stop such cheating was through video verification. Cameras at spots along the route videotaped runners to ensure that an individual had passed through the entire course. The system, however, has drawbacks.

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"One problem is that you can never videotape back into where it gets thick with people," Burke said. "This system will eliminate the need for that. We will put a number of [electronic] readers along the course so you can't run three miles, hop on the MTA and say, 'Hey, I finished the race in three hours!'

"If a reader says you didn't cross at mile 'X' and mile 'Y,' there's no payday."

A transponder is inside each chip that sends information from the marathon route to race officials.

Whenever a runner crosses a special carpet equipped with antennas, the transponder signal is picked up. The information includes the racer's identity, time and location.

Burke declined to discuss exactly how many or where the checkpoints will be along the course. But start, midpoint and finish times will be recorded automatically.

The Champion Chip has been tested in smaller races and was first used officially in the 1994 Berlin Marathon.

Representatives from other major marathons will be watching how well the chip performs in Sunday's race. If it is successful, it may be used at the Boston Marathon in May.

The potential uses of the chip go far beyond this week's marathon, however. Burke says the National Football League and others soon could be using the technology.

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"What's more antiquated than a chain along the side of a field" to measure first downs? he asked. "If you had a chip in the ball, you'd know exactly by computer when a first down comes. It could change a lot of sports . . . track and field, sprints."

What about the granddaddy of sports events, the Olympics?

"I would assume that it gets there very quickly," Burke said.

But Californians can just take this in stride.

"We are very fortunate to be the initial steppingstone for this technology. But it's California; it's just what we are about," Burke said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Los Angeles Marathon

* WHEN: Sunday

* TIME: 8:45 a.m.

* START: Figueroa Street at 8th Street.

* FINISH: Flower Street at 5th Street.

* INTERNET:

http://sportsworld.com/cache/event/event:314/index.html

http://www.wavenet.com/kn6f/

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