Olympics – metric in Winter too

The Department for Transport has always maintained that the measurement system used on road traffic signs can be considered in isolation from the UK, European and global economies. The Winter Olympics in Korea, now drawing to a close, provide us with yet another reminder, should one be needed, that this might not be so.

The introduction of winter sports in the Olympics preceded the Winter Olympics. Figure skating appeared in 1908 and ice hockey in 1920, but both were included in the ‘summer’ games. The winter games did not appear until 1924 when the organisers of the Paris Olympics decided to offer a week of winter sports as an experiment. Following its success, the IOC decided to name the event the Winter Olympics.

Our attention was recently drawn to this graphic, published in the tabloid newspaper The i on 17 February, entitled “Bobsleigh: All you need to know about one of the Winter Olympics’ original sports”.

The modern Olympics are metric and have been since their inception in 1896. So why does the graphic show the maximum speed as 89mph next to the course length in metres, and tell us, bottom left, that “The team has about 50 metres to push the sled to a speed of around 25mph”? The speed limits on our roads are surely to blame – would readers be able to visualise speed in km/h when accustomed to mph on road signs and on the speedos in their cars?

In 1972, when the Department of Transport and its Minister, John Peyton, were looking for an opt out from the UK metric changeover that had begun seven years earlier, the units of measurement used at the Winter Olympics then taking place in Sapporo, Japan, were probably far from their minds. Other sectors of the economy continued with the changeover, but traffic signage would remain imperial, with successive governments content for it to continue as a “stand alone” system. The far-reaching effects of this, resulting in muddle, duplication, expense, waste and confusion, are with us still.

In future articles we shall consider several examples of the consequences of this opt out, and readers may be able to suggest others.

3 thoughts on “Olympics – metric in Winter too”

  1. The canonical supporting examples for the positive effect of metric road signs are, as has been often stated, Canada and Ireland. And Canada reports the hottest daily temperatures exclusively in Celsius! (I suspect Ireland does the same as well.)
    Proof positive that these changes can be made with no danger of riots in the streets. 😉


  2. Another supporting data point is this info on the exceptional cold coming to Northern Ireland from the Met Office:


    Note the exclusive metric for temperatures and snowfall. (Hurrah!)
    This shows that a consistent use of metric only is possible and totally comprehensible by all.

    A quick check of media in the Republic of Ireland also reveals information about this sever cold snap supplied in metric only.


  3. No question that roads dominate the way people relate to speed measurement and that this spills over into all our other discourse of speed. But imperial distance instead of metric is not the only problem with the status quo, IME.

    Having all of my [digital] cycle speedometers (where speed limits virtually never apply) in metric for more than thirty years has convinced me that such relatively large time units as hours in the divisor detaches it from my ability to sympathise with instantaneous speed. So a 143 km/h bobsleigh is as meaningless to me as an 89 mph one, but I can visualise 40 m/s immediately (eek!) because I have a much better sense of the second.


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