Many moons ago, in the hand-held timing era, I went home from a conference track meet with the white ribbon instead of the green one because a coin toss was the only way officials could break down our "photo finish" in the 100-yard dash. With today's timing technology, they could probably have fitted the entire final of runners in the imperceptible gap between me and the other guy.
For spectators of many Winter Olympics events, it's extremely to difficult acquire a sensory appreciation of how the race concluded. Some are run as time trials rather than head-to-head, but even seeing racers together, it's difficult to discriminate when they hit the finish within hundredths of a second. Abstracting the result to a number makes it clear, but not visceral.
Of course, television viewers can watch in-progress digital readouts and time comparisons, and we can rerun the "tape" and break it down in slow motion. These methods all rely on the visual sense to convey the information.
The New York Times takes an interesting approach to illustrating the very small differences among finalist finishers, using sound to portray the intervals. (The player for listening to several finishes is here.)
We experience races primarily in the visual realm, but our visual sense is best at discriminating totality. Our sense of hearing, the player demonstrates, is highly attuned to picking up these small differences that are very difficult to judge in a visual field.
Although we don't usually think of it this way, when we listen to music, we are perceiving the spaces between the time and intervals — exactly what race officials have to do.
One other thought about finishes after watching the end of the women's hockey final the other night. The gold-winning Canadians were joyous, naturally, and the second-best Americans seemed to hold onto disappointment bordering on despair.
Elite athletes in all sports want to win, of course, but I wonder if there is a psychological difference in the way competitors react to defeat, based on the style of competition — whether it is team vs. individual sport, and whether the final competition is against the field or a single opponent.