Sport question: Middle Lanes?

I’ve always wondered this but the Olympics has finally made me come out with this question; why is it that better athletes pick the middle lanes for swimming, sprinting etc. ? Is it simply because you can see your opponents better? Even with qualifying, the people who get first choice (the faster athletes) pick the middle lanes.

In swimming, they don’t pick the middle lanes, you are assigned the middle lanes.

The middle lanes in a swimming pool have less turbulence than the outer lanes.

In track, it depends on the race. If the race has a curve, the inner lanes have a sharper curve and are harder to run. The outer lanes don’t let you see your opponents.
In the 100, the lanes don’t matter that much. Lane assignments are only a big deal in the 200 and 400.

They can also be an issue in races that use a staggered start. When “the merge” occurs, the guy on the outside has to run (slightly) further, while the inside guy can get “squeezed.”

I’ve never heard that the middle lanes have less turbulence. I’ve always understood that the middle lanes were most desirable for the reason that the OP stated: it’s easier to see your opponents. When I swam competitively (at the high school level), I recall only being able to see my opponents well in the two lanes immediately adjacent to mine. They assigned the lanes based on your seed time, with the fastest swimmers in the middle, and the slowest qualifiers along the edge of the pool, next to one of the walls. These lanes along the wall were particularly undesirable, as you had to swim along the wall, and could only really see the one swimmer in the lane next to you well. All of the action was generally taking place several lanes over from you, in the middle.

As far as the wall is concerned, it was generally uncomfortable to be relegated there, as you always had to worry about scraping a hand or foot along it if you weren’t paying attention. Fancier pools actually have a lane line installed along the wall, though, to minimize this possibility.

This might be a stupid question, but why do the faster athletes get “better” lanes?

For the same reason race cars drivers get the pole position s based on their qualifying times, and tennis players get seeded: to make for a better competition. In racing, the fastest are placed next to each other to challenge each other, and the slower ones are started at the back so they won’t get in the way of the fast ones. In tennis, seeding prevents the two best players from hitting each other before the finals (theoretically). I was on the swim team in high school, and we took it as a matter of fact that the middle lanes had less turbulence. I wouldn’t know, personally. The wall and I got to be very good friends those seasons! :smiley:

It’s the reward for having a better qualifying time. This is similar to ‘seeding’ of teams in tournaments.

The middle lanes tend to have less turbulence because there is less rebound of waves off the walls of the pool. It’s also possible to sort of draft off someone who is slightly ahead of you in a similar manner to the way dolphins can ride the wake of a ship.

All this is according to my old teammates. I didn’t ever swim competitively.

If you think of a swimming pool as a really, really, really big bath tub, think of how the water sloshes up higher on the sides than it does in the middle.

The difference may be small to most of us, but at a world class level, it’s a big deal.

Since there are lanes that are (or at least are generally perceived to be) better, all the athletes are going to want those lanes for the final race. If you try to ‘handicap’ the swimmers by putting the slower qualifiers in the center, then the qualifying rounds will be filled with people intentionally holding back, trying to turn in the worst performance that’s still good enough to progress.

By giving the fastest lanes to the fastest qualifiers, you encourage everyone to continually try their hardest, which is more in keeping with the spirit of the games.

Except that Olympic swimming pool designers know this and have gutters at the edge to soak up the waves and not bounce them back at the swimmers. I recall during the Sydney games they commented that in fact the middle lanes were virtually no benefit any more due to the great pool design there.

IMO this commentary is just running on received wisdom.

For the record, this is the rule governing the placement of swimmers from the FINA website.

The rules in track are a little different.

For races from 100m to 800m (and the two relays), the rule is that the top four runners that have qualified are randomly drawn into lanes 3,4, 5 and 6. The last four are randomly assigned to the outer or inner lanes (1-2, 7-8)