One could argue that time is the most important element of the Olympic Games. Four years. One tenth of a second. Two hours, six minutes, 32 seconds. They all carry great importance. In swimming or running, fractions of seconds can mean the difference between qualifying for a final and finishing the Games as a spectator. Olympic and world record times become targets for athletes to chase for four, eight, sometimes twelve years. Even in those sports not usually associated with time, such as the hammer throw or synchronized swimming, time is crucial. A shot putter must begin his throw within one minute of entering the circle. Tennis players have 90 seconds for changeovers and 120 seconds for set changes.
Even as Olympic athletes and their training and equipment have changed over the years, so too has Olympic timekeeping. In the early days, timing relied on mechanical stopwatches and men with quick reaction times, good vision and well-developed thumbs. As the decades progressed, electronic timekeeping and photocells took over and soon races could be timed to the 1/1000th of a second (though a controversial swim finish in 1972 prompted officials to limit timing to 1/100th of a second). Through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, timing got more and more sophisticated. Race results could be instantly displayed as runners crossed the finish line and integrated systems used the touch of a swimmer’s hand to stop the clock, eliminating the problematic human element of the poolside timekeeper.
Of course, as anybody who has watched an Olympics in the past century knows, the name OMEGA is synonymous with timekeeping. The venerable Swiss brand has been the official Olympic timekeeper since 1932 and it is far more than just a marketing ploy. OMEGA takes its timekeeping role very seriously and almost all of the advances in race timing can be attributed to them. Let’s take a look at a few of OMEGA’s recent timekeeping technologies.
The Starter’s Pistol
The starter’s pistol is an emblem of track and field races – the crack of the gun, a puff of smoke and the roar of the crowd as sprinters take off down the track. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, OMEGA introduced a futuristic new starter’s pistol that is not only more reliable and accurate, but also has the added advantage of being airline carry-on safe. When the starter’s finger pulls the trigger, the classic “bang” is played through speakers behind each runner’s starting block, a visual flash is emitted and a pulse is sent electronically to the timing system. No smoke and the only drama is at the finish line.
New this year is an improved starting block for runners. The block, which looks like the kind you might have used back in high school track, has hidden sensors within the foot pads that detect the pressure of a runner’s foot to determine false starts. The pads can be fine tuned to detect the pressure of runners of virtually any size, from a child to an Olympic sprinter so no one gets away with anything.
Swimming finishes can be hard to watch for spectators, both in person and on television. So OMEGA added a visual element to the starting blocks at the end of the pool. A set of lights is linked to the touchpads and instantly indicate first, second and third place finishes by illuminating one, two or three lights on the blocks. Look for this as Phelps and Lochte dual for aquatic supremacy.
While the pool gets all the swimming attention, there is also the open water swimming event, the swim marathon. Of course, swimmers thrashing around in a choppy lake don’t make for compelling spectating and is that much more difficult to follow progress than even the indoor swimmers. So OMEGA developed a “Swim Gate” system that tracks swimmers’ progress in real time based on transponders they wear on their wrists. Whether it makes the swim marathon more popular to watch is anyone’s guess.
These are just a few of the high tech systems that will function largely behind the scenes in London over the next few weeks so keep your eye out for them. And while these new technologies may not have the classic allure of the starter’s pistol and timer’s handheld chronograph, they are just as much a part of Olympic lore and will be deciding the difference between winners, losers, Wheaties box covers and disappointments. After all, in the Olympics, timing is everything.
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Images courtesy of OMEGA