The Olympics – a showcase, but not just for the UK

Thursday 26 July, the eve of the opening of the Games, was a busy day for the Prime Minister as he focused on the benefits the Olympics will bring to the UK.

Speaking first in front of the Olympic Stadium, Mr Cameron said: “Let’s put our best foot forward, we’re an amazing country with fantastic things to offer. This is a great moment for us, let’s seize it.”

Few would disagree with that.

He added “… from where I stand, I think we’re set for a really remarkable few weeks for Britain, when we welcome the world, say this is a great country to come to, enjoy the Olympics, but also think of all the other things we’ve got to offer.”

Later in the day, at a Global Investment Conference timed to coincide with the Games, the PM went on to outline why the UK is a good place to do business. Towards the end of his speech, he said:

“This is a personal mission for me. So I mean it when I say, if there are barriers in your way, tell me. If there are things the British government can do to help, write to me. If there’s an opportunity that we’re not seizing, call me. My office … and all the team at UKTI will help. And I will gladly speak personally with any of you who have a deal or an opportunity that will mean jobs and growth for Britain.

My message today is very simple: Britain is back open for business.”

Metric Views’ first message is also simple. If you are an investor thinking of bringing business to the UK, and you think our measurement muddle is an obstacle, then tell the PM. It could be that you are worried that school leavers are acquainted with two systems of measures but familiar with neither, it could be the confusion in successive Governments which have claimed there should be one primary system of measures for the UK but have not been willing to ensure this, or it could be the schizophrenia at the UK Department for Transport which issues transport statistics in two systems of measures but bans road traffic signs for speed and distance in one of them (the one, incidentally, that will be used at the Games).

Our second message is simple too. The Games are a great showcase for international cooperation and for international sporting competition, but also for the universal system of measures that makes them possible. All of the athletes from the two hundred or so countries that are sending teams to the Games will have assessed their performance over the past months and years against common and universal standards. Like it or not, the Games will be a showcase for the International System of Measures (SI), formerly known as the metric system.

Let us hope UK broadcasters are able to demonstrate familiarity with SI, otherwise they may unwittingly reinforce the impression that measures in Great Britain are in a muddle.

Our third message concerns the Olympic venues, constructed on time and to budget, and all, whether permanent or temporary, designed and constructed to metric standards – nearly all UK construction projects using pound-foot units had already left the drawing board by the early 1970s. Each Olympic venue, and there are over twenty, is a showcase for the carefully planned and swift transition to metric measures which took place in the UK construction industry forty years ago.

And our final message is to Team GB:

Good luck – we will be right behind you over the next two weeks!

30 thoughts on “The Olympics – a showcase, but not just for the UK”

  1. On a related note I have noticed that the media reporting of it, certainly on the BBC, has been encouraging. The website shows all athletes’ heights and weights in metric and all descriptions of the rules for each sport in metric. Further, I noticed the caption at the start of the Great Britain v Senegal match last night showed the weather in Celsius and wind speed in km/h.

    Reporting from the Olympic Park yesterday commentators stated that is was 2.5 square kilometres, all other reports have of course used metric – i.e. 10 metre diving board, 30 km walk, 66 kg, wrestling etc – in fact only mention of imperial was of course when describing the marathon as being 26 miles 385 yards. They spoke to the guy who had measured it out and he spoke in metres but the length of a marathon was quoted in imperial and was of course incorrect – a marathon is not necessarily this distance.

    I have noticed a couple of weird scenarios so far though. In a women’s football match somebody commented that the sun was setting and left just a 10 m strip of sun on the pitch then proceeded to commentate using yards. The best one was this morning though talking about a high jump hopeful. Her teacher stated that she “could just clear 1.71 m which was remarkable for somebody who was only 5′-2″”- you couldn’t make it up lol.


  2. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to this country coming for the Games will get a first impression at Heathrow, Dover or wherever they land that Britain is not metric at all, thanks to those neanderthals at the Department for Transport. Many of those visitors might well be potential customers for goods and services created in the UK.

    They must look at our road signs with a feeling of utter dismay. One cannot blame them if they think that those road signs represent the measurement standards for every aspect of this country’s economy. If ever they thought of sourcing anything from the UK, many may well decide to look elsewhere, rather than risk a measurement muddle.

    Five years ago, we talked on this very website what a wonderful opportunity the Olympics could have been to complete the transition to metric standards on the roads, in order to showcase the fact that Britain was indeed open for business – business conducted in the world’s standard measurement units, SI. It is indeed unfortunate that this opportunity was squandered by those decision-makers at DfT, whose collective IQ appears to barely stretch into double digits.


  3. I was not encouraged by hearing a TV news reporter recently talk about a Javelin thrower’s achievement in inches!


  4. The Opening Ceremony was viewed around the world by an estimated audience of 1 billion people. It began with a 60-second countdown featuring a film montage of images of numbers familiarly seen in Britain, e.g “10” was represented by a picture of the number on the door of the Prime Minister’s residence. “20” was a speed limit sign (in mph), and “52” was the (illegal) unit price of tomatoes on a market stall (52 p/lb). If any meaning was intended by the images, subliminal or otherwise, then it was that we are letting the world know that Britain doesn’t use metric.


  5. Something else I noted in opening ceremony was that the distance the torch had been carried was given in kilometres in French and then in miles in English. All those English speakers across the globe watching – maybe 400-500 million – would have thought what on earth ??


  6. The pre-race studio-based link-commentators on the mens’ cycle road-race referred to the length of the course in miles, but I was pleased that once the commentary was handed over to the actual race commentators, everything was in km and km/h from that point on, likewise all the on-screen graphics and all the track-side signage that I could see.

    How come the BBC’s studio link-commentators are not singing to the same songbook?

    Having the race all in SI units was ideal, since it was easy to compare the day’s events with memories of stages of the recent Tour de France. Sadly our boys got mugged in the final climb of Box Hill and were then unable to do anything for the last 40 km or so on the flat terrain racing back to London. That’s road cycling for you. Chess on wheels.


  7. Woah! I didn’t spot this yesterday on the Men’s road race, but today on the Women’s road race they ran a “height profile” graphic which was displaying metres as “M”. Not sure how many other displays might have done that, but one of the round-up shows this evening they had an extract of the Men’s “Finn Class” sailing showing the gaps between boats, again using “M” for metres.

    This is a rotten example to show our kids, and if it’s going overseas, well, it’s not showing us in a good light at all! I’m not sure the BBC are responsible for on-screen graphics: they may just be showing what the Olympic people supply (whoever *they* may be). Whatever: does the UKMA have enough clout to track down the source of these rubbish graphics and jump on them?


  8. @Wild Bill

    Unfortunately, the font that is being used for the onscreen graphics at the Olympics is such that all lower case letters are represented by small versions of the upper case letters. This style of font is not ideal for representing metric symbols.



  9. In the US, on NBC, we see graphics exactly like that in M’s link so they must be provided by the Olympic organizers, not by individual broadcasters.


  10. Just curious to know if US broadcasters tend to stick to metric measures during the Olympics or not ? Do they convert metres into soft yards (archery targets, cycling and rowing races), translate kilograms into pounds (weightlifting and boxing) and such like ? Thankfully UK broadcasters aren’t doing that except for when they want to give an athlete’s height.

    One thing that does vex me is that on BBC Radio Five Live a number of football commentators are commentating, most notably Alan Green at the rowing. He of course only uses yards for football but is 100% metres when commentating on rowing including distance of race, how much gone, how much left, how many metres in front etc so he clearly knows and understands metres. It’s potty that we need a separate unit of measure just for football.


  11. I am relatively pleased so far that the all-metric games have more or less been presented and commented on as such by the BBC presenters with no silly conversions. It is good that people seem quite relaxed with metres and kilograms once they accept it as normal in the context of applications where it is well established. Proof if ever it was needed that people get used to it quite easily when they are not inhibited by peer pressure or a mistaken belief that it will lose audiences.

    Some seem to be a bit stuck in the past though. Sir Steven Redgrave brought yards into the conversation about the rowing even though the person he was talking to spoke in metres.


  12. To John Steele: yes, I wrote to the BBC and they said that they’re just broadcasting what the Olympics people give them, onscreen graphics and all. I’d wondered who was doing the graphics since it wasn’t obvious that the supplier of the TV feeds necessarily had to be the supplier of graphics. Looks like it is though.

    It doesn’t look so bad when you’ve got mixed case in the image and can see that it’s supposedly a small ‘m’ (for metres). But the Finn Class sailing coverage on Sunday evening just showed some boats with a table listing how far each boat was behind the leader in metres. The fact that the ‘m’ wasn’t an ‘M’ was now impossible to spot, as it was the only alphabetic character on the list. Normally “small caps” is a typographical style, not a feature of the font. Certainly it would seem that S.I. didn’t think of such a possibility when they thought up the symbols for units. I mean, what’s “MM”, millimetres or megametres? There’s a factor of 10^9 between them, and nothing to show for it!


  13. @Mark Preston

    It depends on the sport, the announcer, and what is available to them. Some examples:

    *The bicycling road race (250 km) was described entirely in metric by the race announcers, but the studio announcers referred to it as “over 155 miles.”

    *The white water kayaking course was described yesterday as 300 m long and a drop of 18 feet (actually 5.5 m). The mixed units are a classic, as it is much harder to determine average slope.

    *There is little need to mention the dimensions of a volleyball court, but yesterday. the announcer described the net height as 7 ft 4-1/4 in (women’s). FIVB specifies 2.24 m, but several US transcriptions of the rules give Imperial/Customary dimensions. One was no doubt used as the source.

    *As soon as track & field starts, we will be subjected to announcers converting all field event results to feet and inches while the screen shows metric results, and/or officials interacting with metric markers on the field of play. Utterly confusing. It is best to mute the announcer and wait for the posted result. Getting the results orally in one unit, visually in another, blows BOTH out of your mind, and you sit there scratching your head. This is in part due to USATF and NCAA measuring in metric then converting and announcing feet and inches to the audience and media as a matter of course. [/rant]

    On the good news side, our announcers appear to do better on the water. I have not noticed any conversions in 10 m platform diving, swimming, water polo, or rowing. In rowing, separation distances are normally in boat lengths, but course length, distance run and remaining are normally in meters.

    I don’t think I’ve seen any weightlifting yet this year. My recollection from prior years is that they give both kg and lb, and the (US) sport encourages reporting that way. The most egregious versions of conversion are when the US version of the sport encourages it and provides tools to facilitate it, whether it is US versions of the rules with feet and inches, or conversion guides such as Track & Field’s “Big Gold Book” which is about 1/3 metric conversions (67 pages!), plus rules of the events and historical statistics. If the US version of the sport follows international rules in metric, then the announcers mostly do as well. (Sorry, I can’t speak to archery. Air rifle was described as being a 10 m range, but I didn’t watch and I don’t know how they described results).


  14. @Wild Bill

    Or the font chosen is simply unsuitable for displaying SI quantities. The SI Brochure specifies upright Roman, and it specifies lower case. The font fails, it is not Roman (I assume it must at least be a “serif” font to qualify as Roman), it is not upright, and it doesn’t support lower case.

    Other applications have departures from the SI Brochure. Our National Hurricane Center uses “all caps” Teletype format for hurricane bulletins. I got them to use “KM/H” for kilometers per hour, but I don’t expect them to go to “km/h”. I can usually tell millimeters from megameters by context. Fortunately, the only other use of “M” as a symbol is for Molar or molarity in chemistry, where it is deprecated (proper usage is mol/L). (Well, and in the UK for miles). Not to excuse it as an error, but it doesn’t cause much confusion.


  15. @ John Steele

    Thanks for your response, guess it shows how far we have progressed towards acceptance and understanding of metric here in the UK and how far behind the US is.

    I was surprised to read the other day that 100 yard, 200 yard etc races are still run at track and field events in the US and that a lot of swimming pools there are 25 and 50 yards long.

    Surely the US public must wonder a) why the captions and rules are all metric and b) why they seem to be the odd one out ?

    To think that US citizens watching won’t even be able to fathom out the weather from the on screen captions.

    As a complete aside, watched an Horizon documentary on BBC last night about NASA / JPL lander mission to Mars – NASA / JPL guys all used 100% metric. Some progress.


  16. The table showing today’s evening pool events that was broadcast last night on BBC1 was all in upper case apart from the ‘m’ describing the events – ‘200m’, etc. Has someone at the BBC or OBS been listening? But we seem to be losing the battle on the space – in days gone by, did we write 5ft, 10cwt or 15pt thereby inculcating bad habits?

    And dear old Sir Steve. His age qualifies him for membership of the Imperial minority (see MV article of 16 July – he is 50), and he writes for The Telegraph which requires an Imperial mind set, so we can expect him to lapse into the past occasionally.

    Overall, so far so good – the use of measurements is better than expected, the venues appear to be really excellent, and even the transport system is holding up. The GB medal tally should improve. Just keep your fingers crossed: 12 days to go.


  17. @Mark,
    “I was surprised to read the other day that 100 yard, 200 yard etc races are still run at track and field events in the US and that a lot of swimming pools there are 25 and 50 yards long.”

    I think your source may be wrong on the first point. At college level and above, all competition is metric, even if field events are announced in Customary. At the high school level, all, or nearly all, high schools converted to metric track long ago. There may be some cross country races in miles, but tracks are metric (or the school is below the poverty line). At the high school level, field events may be measured in Customary or metric and a great many schools use feet and inches. The kids then get quite a surprise when they go to college.

    At the high school level, many schools can not justify the cost of converting a pool to a metric length. At the college level, NCAA requires it for NCAA-sanctioned meets. Division I schools changed a long time ago, and they gradually expanded it to Division II and III. (These divisions basically measure the size of a school’s athletic program, number of sports, number of athletic scholarships, etc. I DON’T really know the rules.)

    A lot of Americans who live near the northern or southern border visit either Canada or Mexico fairly often and survive in metric. I think Americans could adapt to metric a lot faster than broadcasters, US Track & Field, or Congress give them credit for. Most companies with international operations (as opposed to just sales) are metric here, and their workers at least use metric at work. If Congress ever had the will to convert, I think there might be less opposition from the public than in the UK. However, we certainly have some businesses with no real international exposure who see no merit to metrication and are dead set against it. They seem to have Congress’ ear.

    Back to sports, I watched more rowing yesterday. While distances were entirely in meters, the announcers explained the weight definitions for “lightweight” crews in both men’s and women’s competition in pounds. The rules of course use kilograms:
    Men’s lightweight: 70 kg average for the crew, 72.5 kg individual max
    Women’s: 57 kg avg, 59 kg individual
    I don’t mind if they also give a conversion to help the innumerate, but I strongly feel they should communicate the REAL rule as written. In contrast, the Wall Street Journal left weight classes for judo in kilograms, no supplemental conversion, in a table of results yesterday. We are a very mixed bag. There is NO policy whatsoever. Everyone can be as metric or non-metric as they wish. That creates an opportunity for metric advocates to at least push for metric as dual information, but little opportunity to ever get rid of the supplemental Customary.


  18. @M

    Thanks for the course map. What a ridiculous course. A short loop for the odd distance, and three laps of an 8 mile loop for the rest of the distance. The mile marker stations are “reused” 3 or 4 times depending on lap number. However, the kilometer marker stations are only valid on a particular lap (lap #2: 5, 10, 15 km; lap #3:20, 25 km; lap #4: 30, 35, 40 km). This strategy is VERY mile-centric and places an unreasonable burden on foreign competitors to understand miles well enough to know about where they are and whether to believe the kilometer markers. Was it laid out by DfT?

    The loop strategy has flaws if you wish to dual label it, but in deference to it being an international competition, and not a British competition, a short loop of 2.195 km and a lap loop of 10 or 20 km would be far more suitable.

    (Sorry to be so critical, but that map really threw me for a loop, if you will pardon the pun.)


  19. Under marathon rules they must (and do) show markers every 5 km.
    As they have chosen to go the multiple of miles for the laps, and for markers every mile, they are going to have to do some odd-ball juggling to get the x 5 km markers in the right places for the right runners. Quite a lot of scope for errors, objections and appeals by the look of it. It should give an advantage to the American runners mostly, UK runners if they have trained in miles. The rest of the world will be left wondering what all these strange markers mean.

    @ derekp
    Sorry Derek, but I am 68 years old, I do metric fairly well. I think this type of comment could be better used against the young reporters of all types that perpetuate the stupidity of using imperial measurements. We oldies can do nothing about our age, it is to do with the time we were born.
    I even heard on BBC SE news recently the very pretty young Polly Evens using stones for the weight of divers air cylinders, that unit I have NEVER before heard used for anything but human body weight, other than on this programme. A very strange breed these presenters.


  20. I noticed that serve speeds at Wimbledon were given in km/h. I suspect this may be supplied by the Olympic organisers and that by next year they will be back to mph. I hope that I am wrong but I’m not holding my breath.


  21. John Steele says:
    >The font fails, it is not Roman
    >(I assume it must at least be a “serif” font to qualify as Roman)

    No. I made the same false interpretation as you. Then I discovered there’s no requirement to use Roman typeface.

    Most common interpretation of ‘Roman font’ means a Roman typeface.
    Least common interpretation of ‘Roman’ merely means non-italic.

    I recommend we avoid misinterpretation by saying simply ‘non-italic’.


  22. Update from the Women’s marathon, held today.

    Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) were very much in control of the pictures – they had even brought camera cars, motor bikes and crews from Spain. The on-screen information, also from OBS, was in metric, including the distance covered and the ‘splits’ on performance at 5 km intervals.

    As regards roadside signs, those for the runners were metric: “Water and sponges 100m ahead”. But large distance boards had been placed along the route at one mile intervals -perhaps the organisers of the London marathon had been involved and followed their usual plan.

    Of the BBC commentators, Brendan Foster aged 64, was largely Imperial: “One loop of 2 miles and 3 loops of eight miles”, and so on. His colleague, Steve Cram, aged 51, seemed more comfortable with metric – he had to be for the rain had put his pc out of action and he relied on OBS for information!


  23. I listened to it on the radio and the guy who always does the athletics and never uses imperial kept referring to the length of the loops in km, the distance completed in km and the average speed in km/h. I also find the cycling guys are very metric orientated, always metres and kilometres and speeds in km/h. Steve Cram was commentating at the start of the 10,000 m last night and pointed out to viewers it was 6.25 miles and tonight he talked about an athlete winning the 400 m in the last few yards !!

    Jon Inverdale all night was talking about the 100 m, 400 m, 400 m hurdles, 10,000 m etc then pointed out that the hockey stadium was 400 yards from the Olympic Stadium – you couldn’t make it up.

    If everybody is talking about legacy how about giving us a sensible joined up system of measurement – has it not dawned on the millions watching that everything is metric – all the way – 100% ?

    And really, if people don’t now know what 50 m, 100 m, 2000 m, 50 km, 78 kg is by now after 10 days of constant viewing of athletic, cycling, rowing or boxing then we have no hope.

    The fact is people been watching in their millions, exposed to metric, get it, understanding it, have no problems with it, haven’t been inundating the BBC switchboard – the world is still turning on its axis.


  24. @derekp

    In the US, we had the complete opposite with NBC. I assume OBS is the common video stream provider. However, we got mile splits in what appeared to be the common Olympic format. NBC managed to suppress the 5 km splits on the broadcast, but had only 5 km splits (no miles) on their online results page. I wonder if they offer an option (or transmit both) for the national broadcaster.

    NBC devoted about 10 minutes per hour to the actual race and 50 minutes to babble; announcers, commercials, interviews, irrelevant clips. Oddly we got to see most of the mile markers, but they cut to babble just before most of the 5 km markers (I saw only the 20 km and 35 km markers; they were “off race” for all the others).

    Glad you guys got to see a good marathon. The US coverage was so bad I am undecided about watching the men’s next Sunday.


  25. If voluntary metrication like in Canada and Britain would have been the only way for the world to go -e v e n t u a l l y- metric, the 2012 Olympics would behave have to cater for about 204 (countries) incompatible measurement modes. One can easily imagine how countries like Britain and America would insist on using their obsolete measurement Hodge podge, while arguing among themselves, which one of the two it should be? No country on this globe ever managed to go voluntarily metric and for good reasons, HABIT, which makes it more difficult to unlearn something than learning something new.


  26. Like others, I have found it refreshing to listen to the BBC television sports commentators during the Olympic broadcasts. Mention of imperial values completely in a vast minority. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the BBC news reporters, who cling steadfastly to the concept that everything metric has to be converted. Time and again the BBC news have given assurances that there is no corporate policy on the use of units of measure, claiming it is left at the discretion of the individual reporters. This I find extremely hard to believe. One of the signals that drives my scepticism is that the physical appearance of the news team members is clearly being orchestrated, so why not other areas of ‘style’? Whereas the sports commentating team are reasonably casually dressed, viewing all (male) news reporters doing pieces to camera dressed dark lounge suits and (usually extremely colourful) ties amongst the very casually turned out stadium audience really does pose the question as to whether the BBC news is totally out of step with the times. I assume they believe such a style of dress adds gravitas and authority to the presenter. Personally, the signal it sends to me is of an organisation hidebound by its own conservatism to the extent it is starting to appear silly.


  27. I am embarassed to say that NBC brought a meteorologist as part of their media team so that we Americans wouldn’t have to hear British weather forecasts in metric.

    I assume he is using Met Office data and converting. He doesn’t seem to have his own weather station with him. In fact, it is more like “weather color” than a real weather forecast. To be quite frank, Weather Underground gives a much more useful London forecast; the cost of his plane ticket was unwarranted.


  28. Another lapse by John Inverdale. The temperatures by the week-end are expected to be in the 80s and 90s. Is he also broadcasting on an American channel?


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