Simon Errington looks back over 25 years of orienteering and picks his top 10 technological advances since he took up the sport in 1977. (Reproduced from Pacemaker 92, May 2004)
Top 10 - Technology Advances
Posted on Monday, May 24, 2004.
No contest at the top for those who remember the bad old days of latrine pits, toilet tents, cardboard toilets and even rubbish skips with planks. Nobody who has experienced the alternatives should ever complain about the queue for the Portaloo. BOF thought they were such a good idea that the cost of toilets used to be tax-deductible when calculating the levy to be paid by an event. Recent bad publicity about toilets blowing over at the British Championships this year doesn't even begin to approach the true horrors of how it used to be.
To some people this is the way it has always been, but it was not until 1997 that we saw the first electronic punching events in this country. The leap from nothing to standard practice has been remarkably quick and painless. This was undoubtedly helped by the Lottery money that was available at just the right time to help out the clubs and associations brave enough to make the jump. There was a time when Tyvek control cards would have been near the top of this list, but they are all but irrelevant now for big events. There are people around who have never known the joy of checking 2000 soaking wet control cards in a cold dark tent. You really don't know what you are missing.
In the bad old days you sent off your map (on at least five separate drawing films) and waited with crossed fingers. Several weeks later you got back the map, or rather several thousand of them, since it was cheaper that way. Nowadays I can sit at home and print direct to a colour inkjet or laser printer, and out comes an almost perfect and certainly usable map. The blind alley of colour photocopying caught a few people out for a while (don't do it unless there is no alternative) but the latest laser printed offerings from the depths of Kallkwik in Leamington Spa are almost indistinguishable from offset printing. Printing on demand (at registration or even in the start lane) will be the next big thing.
The information is out there if you only know where to look. Fixture lists, event details, start lists, results, split times, club contact information, scandal, gossip, and even scurrilous newsletter articles can all be found from the comfort of home. Many people will have already worked out you can find details of and enter just about any event anywhere in the world by email if you try hard enough My latest achievement was to discover that the Mallorcan Orienteering Championships happened to co-incide with a holiday in Mallorca. Two emails later and Helen and I were Mallorcan Orienteering Champions for 2003.
Producing an orienteering map is never going to be an easy process, but OCAD has at least made it something that mortals can attempt. My 1985 copy of Mapmaking for Orienteers lays out in great detail the pros and cons of scribing over drawing, along with details of pen widths, light tables, letraset symbols and much more. OCAD reduces all this to a mouse, keyboard and whatever artistic talent you may have to add. Gone are the days of separate drawing films for each colour, all drawn in black just to confuse the novices. Now the colour separations are done for you and what you see is (nearly) what you get. Why not download a free version of OCAD from the internet to see what it is all about and find if you could be the club's next expert cartographer?
Somewhen in the early 80s a watch hit the streets that allowed you to record 30 split times. Suddenly it was possible to compare individual leg times and find out what was really happening in the forest. Huddles would form at the finish as people compared route choices and times and argued about how much time they had lost. This has largely been replaced now by split time print-outs, but look round an orienteering car park and spot the ones wearing a split time watch. I still take split times at all races, just to check up on the electronics.
It's clearly difficult to design something that will give you grip on the range of terrain that you encounter on even a small orienteering event in the south east, let alone deepest, hilliest, rockiest, muddiest Scotland or Scandinavia. Rubber studs alone were not enough, and there was a period when O-shoes came with screw-in cross-country spikes. These lethal items had a tendency to inflict bone-deep ankle lacerations during mass starts, as well as picking up small tree trunks and M10s that you ran over on the course. Then someone worked out that you could put the metal bit inside the rubber bit, and the Dobb spike was born.
There was you thinking you just needed to run faster, but what you really needed was for your compass to be faster as well. A mysterious design of fat needles or extra bolt-on magnets turns out to produce a compass that settles faster than a traditional thin needle compass. People who have just bought such an item are easily identified since they spend the next 30 minutes flicking the compass backward and forwards and insisting that their friends watch how fantastic it is. We're talking the difference between about two seconds and about one second for the needle to settle, and you still need to remember to take the bearing in the first place, but if every second counts then this is the gadget for you. For those who still think that induction damping is the latest craze it may be time for a new toy.
Now that split times are commonplace you really need a way of interpreting what all the numbers really mean. Bring on Winsplits and spend hours watching little runner icons rerun the race whilst cheering on your favourites and groaning as you miss the depression at number 5 yet again and your greatest rival pulls ahead. The various options allow you to spot who ran the fastest (and slowest) times on each leg, who that person was who led you astray at control 10, what time you really lost tying up your shoe laces on the run-in and even how much you would have won by if you hadn't made any mistakes at all. But seriously this is a fantastic program, and should be the first place to look for anyone trying to work out what they are doing wrong and where the time is going.
In the good old days everybody wore nylon O trousers in a range of dark colours so as not to offend the senses or put off other competitors. Then people began to realise that they weren't really all that pleasant to run in, especially when wet. Bring on the lycra bottoms, and suddenly everybody was out there sporting the go-faster look, no matter what size of body they needed to squeeze in. My first pair were a result of getting to the JK assembly area and realising my O trousers were 2.5km away in the car, whilst the my start was 5 minutes away in the corner of the field. Ultrasport to the rescue, as ever, and it has been lycra ever since.