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A Survey of Olympic Timekeeping Technologies
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Maybe it’s our keen interest in timepieces, but when it comes to Olympic sports, we prefer those that involve beating the clock or getting across the line faster than everybody else. Half-pipe snowboarding may be thrilling and ski jumping nail-biting, but nothing comes close to a short-track speedskating photo finish or watching the digital split times in the Super-G. Sure, even the ice dancers have their time limits but the Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger” and we’ll take a .001-second victory over a triple salchow any day. Luckily, our bias for the speed sports is shared with timepiece powerhouse OMEGA, who has been timing the Games since 1932.
Aside from producing some pretty awesome watches, including one that went to the Moon, OMEGA maintains an entire division whose sole focus is sports timing. While OMEGA Timing used to involve the use of quaint mechanical stopwatches, times have changed; the only mechanical watch timing anything anywhere close to Sochi will likely be one of Putin’s chronographs keeping his minions in line. Olympic timing is serious business these days and nothing is left to watches that need winding: it’s all lasers and photocells and transponders. Every two years when an Olympic Games rolls around, OMEGA comes out with some new technology that improves timekeepers’ abilities to be more accurate and avoid controversies. Two years ago, we looked at the Summer Games in London. Now let’s see what’s happening in Sochi.
OMEGA Measurement Unit
Arguably the biggest new development making its debut in Sochi is the OMEGA Measurement Unit that will be used in the bobsleigh (or bobsled) races. Despite its rather unimaginative name, the Measurement Unit brings some impressive technology to the race: the device doesn’t just measure straight line speed but also acceleration and angular velocity. In case you didn’t pay attention in physics class, those parameters translate into the forces acting on the sleds as they rocket down the track. While this data may be nothing more than curiosities to fans, it’s important to teams, coaches and officials, who can monitor the information instantaneously during the races thanks to wireless transmission.
Hardware-wise, the OMEGA Measurement Unit consists of small sensors and transmitters mounted on the front of each sled that contain a three-axis gyro-sensor, three-axis accelerometer and a speed sensor. Early prototypes developed a couple of years ago required bulky CPUs inside the sleds, which weren’t ideal. OMEGA continued to refine the wireless transmission component of the device, and the Measurement Units used in Sochi are negligibly small and light. Look for the small red pods on the leading edge of the sleds, which will most likely be a blur as the teams fly down the track. We’d love to get one to use on our favorite Flexible Flyer, but we’re not holding our breath.
Electronic Start System
While it may not be as nostalgic as the old guns, OMEGA’s new version, developed for the 2012 London Summer Games, is more accurate, synchronized and easier to get through airport security. Looking nothing like a traditional gun, the oblong red device still sounds like a pistol shot when fired but is wired to speakers behind the athletes to eliminate that split-second delay between shot and sound. It is also tied directly to the master timing clock so that when the trigger is pulled, timing starts immediately, making for highly accurate race timing. Look for the red “pistols” at the speedskating events.
Scan‘O’Vision Photofinish Camera
While the race times displayed on television are instantaneous the moment a ski or skate breaks the finish line, the final determination of medals is determined by the images taken by the Scan‘O’Vision. The camera, which is positioned at the finishing line, records action at an astounding 2,000 times per second and then immediately transmits the images to the officials’ computers, who make the final call. What we see are the now-familiar distorted images of athletes straining to the line. Look for the big red cameras at the finish lines of the biathlon, Nordic skiing, ski/snowboard cross and speedskating events.
While the photofinish camera is used to make final determination of finishing order, laser photocells located at the finishing line detect when a leg, a ski or a skate break the plane and stop the clock to record timing. The photocell technology dates back to the 1948 London Summer Games and has actually changed very little other than modern refinements in transmission. The weakness of the system is shown in tight finishes when a cluster of athletes crosses the line together, making precise timing difficult; that’s why the photocells are used in conjunction with the photofinish camera to make final determinations.
When you registered for your last triathlon (or 5k), race officials likely gave you a small plastic gadget to velcro to your ankle so you could brag about your transition times. Well, these transponders are similar to those OMEGA developed for Olympic timing. Skaters and skiers wear these featherweight pods on their legs so that their split times can be tracked during races, adding one more timing element to final finish order determination.
No, it’s not the name of a Russian political scandal. The Snowgate is the familiar “gate” Alpine skiers snap open when they leave the start house atop the mountain in Rosa Khutor. Skiers have a ten-second window of time in which to activate the Snowgate; leave too soon or too late and that run is disqualified. The gate, like the starting pistol described earlier, is tied into the master timing system so the clock starts at the precise moment the gate reaches an exact angle when the skier bursts out. To ensure this angle is the same for every skier, there are two systems involved, one electronic and one mechanical.