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Olympics-Facts

How timekeeping at the Olympics evolved through the years

Timekeeping is one of the most important aspects of the Olympics. Here is how it has evolved through years with improved technologies

Evolution of timekeeping at Olympics (Source: Olympics)
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Omega timekeeping sponsors of Olympics (Source: Olympics)

By

Ajinkya Jain

Updated: 2021-07-22T23:00:23+05:30

Modern Olympic Games marked their beginning in 1896 at Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece. The first Winter Olympics were held in 1924 at Chamonix, France. 1956 marks one of the most important milestones in the Olympic movement wherein the Winter Olympic games held at Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy were televised for the first time ever for the international audience by Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI).

The broadcasts were relayed to other European countries like Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, The United Kingdom and Switzerland by Eurovision. 2012-London Games were historic in the sense that as many as 32 world records were broken across 8 different sports which currently is a world record in itself.

All these records were confirmed by accurate timekeeping and scoring systems used by International Olympic Committee (IOC). As we are fast approaching the Games of XXXII Olympiad at Tokyo -2020, here is the fascinating story of how the Timekeeping at Olympics evolved over the period of time and how it managed to settle in its current form.

1896-1928

Stopwatch (Source: First class watch)

In the first five modern Summer Olympic Games till 1912, judges of each sport used their own stopwatches, which resulted in timekeeping problems arising not only due to human errors but also on account of different brands of stopwatches used by each and every judge.

In the first ever Olympic Marathon in 1896, the stopwatch held by the judge at the start line was carried on the bicycle till the finish line ahead of all the 17 runners from 5 nations.

In 1920 however, IOC understood the need of having a uniform timekeeping solution for the game and thus decided upon bringing in Heuer (Now Tag Heuer), a Swiss Luxury Watchmaker established in 1860, as an official timekeeper for the Antwerp Olympics.

It was the first time that Chronographs were used to keep the record of athlete's time in the races. For the first time in the world, Heuer produced a stopwatch called as Mikrograph Pocket Chronometer, which was accurate to one-hundredth of a second. Heuer was then assigned a position as an official timekeeper till the 1928-Amsterdam games.

1932-1936

1932-Los Angeles Games marked a major overhaul in the timekeeping system for the Olympics wherein the timekeeping contract was awarded to another Swiss giant Omega for the first time. Omega sent 30 Olympic Calibre 1130 stopwatches and one watchmaker to the event across the Atlantic.

These stopwatches were accurate to 1/10th of a second and also featured a rattrapante which is a split-seconds functionality. Not to forget, the timekeeping at the Olympics till this point in time was performed by human judges and not electronic devices. In order to reduce bias and human error, it was decided that the sports where timing is crucial will be timed by as many as six judges.

All these six judges used the Omega pocket watches and the time noted by each of them was then noted, added up and averaged out to arrive at a final time for the competition. Another revolutionary technology that made its debut in 1932 was the "Chronocinema".

It was a camera that could record times to the nearest 1/100th of a second. The only problem with using this camera was that it took several hours to develop its film and arrive at a suitable conclusion after watching it.

As the luck would have it, the Chronocinema was put to test right away in 100 meters final wherein Thomas Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe of the USA was engaged in a tight finish.

The Omega stopwatch clocked 10.3 seconds for both the athletes and Metcalfe was appearing to have crossed the finishing line first. However, with the help of Chronocinema, it was revealed that it was Tolan who completely crossed the finishing line and was declared as a winner by 1/20th of a second.

1948-1960

The Year 1948 was a turning point in the history of timekeeping in the Olympics as it enjoyed the technological advancements thanks to the arms race of world war-II. Omega was actually one of the main suppliers of watches to Great Britain's Ministry of Defence and some of its allies during both World Wars.

Omega delivered more than 110,000 pilots', navigators' and soldiers' watches to Great Britain's Ministry of Defence. 1948 St. Moritz Winter Olympic Games saw the first use of a photo-electrical timing system which was later known as "Magic Eye" by Omega. The same technology was later in 1948-London summer games was paired with the world's first slit photo-finish camera.

It was the first time that the fully automated system was used as a timekeeping mechanism for the Olympics. The photo finish camera used in 1948 comprised a camera at the finish line linked to an electronic pistol that would start the race. The camera had a slit of a tenth of a millimetre in its frame, exactly aligned with the finish line where the winner obstructing a light ray would determine when the picture would be taken.

The official announcement would come after two or so minutes – a considerable improvement over the Chronocinema of old.

1952-Helsinki was the first time that the Omega time recorder was used in the Olympic games. It featured an electronic and quartz-based chronograph and a high-speed printing device that enabled Omega to get instant print-out of the results which were accurate to the nearest 1/100th of a second.

It was also the first portable device that was powered by a battery. 1956-Melbourne saw development in timing the under-water timing for the swimming events. The Omega Swim Eight-O-Matic was the world's first semi-automatic swimming timer in which there were eight electro-mechanical counters in each of the eight lanes.

The starting of all these counters was triggered by the starting gun/pistol while the counters were stopped manually by the timekeepers with a hand-held electric timer thus reducing the timing errors in swimming events by half. 1960-Rome saw one of the most controversial finishes in the Olympic history in 100m freestyle finals.

The athletes involved in a photo finish were John Devitt from Australia and Lance Larson from the USA. The finish was so close that out of six judges present at the first and second place gave split decision and finally with the advice of the chief judge, Devitt was declared as the winner leaving Larson with the fastest time for his silver medal!

1964-1980

1964-Innsbruck winter games were the first time when the running time was superimposed over the live television picture. The technology called Omegascope was used for the same. 1964-Tokyo summer game proved to be the aberration for Omega when the timekeeping honours were rested upon the local giant Seiko. Especially for these games, Seiko produced the world's first Electronic Automated Timing System.

The system used at the 1964-Tokyo Games linked the starting pistol with a quartz timer and a photo finish apparatus was used to record finishing times. Seiko deployed a total of 36 models, 1,278 timing instruments (including the abovementioned), and 172 staff members to support the success of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. For the 1968-Grenoble Winter Games, Omega returned as an official timekeeper.

These were the first Olympic games broadcast in colours. It was also the first time when Omega used an integrated timing system which meant to distribute the timing results amongst the press, television channels, judges as well as general public along with additional information and statistics.

After the Swimming debacle in 1960-Rome, Omega felt the need of improving the timekeeping methods for this sport and thus introduced electronic touchpads for the swimming competitions since the 1968-Mexico City Games.

The idea of this gadget was to let swimmers time themselves as the timing would begin at the start of the race and would end in the swimmer touching a touch-sensitive pad built on the wall of the pool. These pads were reactive towards the slightest of human touches but non-disreputable due to water pressure.

In 1968 itself Omega placed a loudspeaker behind each starting block so that all the swimmers would hear the signal at the same time. This was not the only change at these games. The reliable Eight-O-Matic system was replaced by the Swim-O-Matic which was accurate to 1/1000th of a second.

The first false start detection system (Source: Wallpaper)

1984-2004

In 1984-Los Angeles, Omega introduced the first false start detection system. It consisted of a sensitive timer which was triggered by the pressure of the athletes' legs (29kg for Men and 27kg for women) against the block.

This was then displayed to timekeepers on a decisive graph. The runner was not allowed to have moved until 0.100 seconds after the start signal, something that could, at last, be accurately measured and determined. At the same time, Omega started installing loudspeakers onto every individual starting block so that each runner could hear the sound at the exact same time.

In 1988-Seoul games, computerized timekeeping emerged as the latest timekeeping solution by Omega. Beyond providing mere timings, Omega started storing vital information and generating interesting statistics for the TV viewership.

It was supplemented by the special scoreboards during walking and marathon events that are mounted on the top of cars to project live times to spectators and competitors. In, 1992-Albertville Winter Games a new system called Scan'O'Vision was launched by Omega in which time up to 1/1000th of a second was measured. It also became one of the best photo-finish cameras.

From 1996 till 2004, the parent of Omega brand, SMH Group decided to promote its other brands in the Olympics and thus the contract for the same was passed on to Swatch. It was the other brand in the group which also consisted of a heavyweight lineup with Swiss Timing, Omega and Longines.

Omega Quantum Timer

2008 onwards

Omega as a brand marked its return to the Olympic movement in 2006. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Omega on-boarded 420 tons of the timing equipment to keep a track of performances by 10,492 athletes over 302 events.

For Marathon races, Omega equipped the lead car with the GPS tracker which transmitted the progress of the leader group. Also, the wireless radio signal transmitters fitted on every athlete's shoe helped in collecting data as they passed by a set of antennas installed along the course. T

his technology brought the television viewers closer to the game and unfolded the road to the marathon victory. Beijing also witnessed an extremely closed finish in 100m Butterfly finals between the legend Michael Phelps and his Serbian competitor Milorad Cavic, where Phelps managed to outswim Milo by 0.01 seconds thanks to a remarkable last double stroke.

Since the 2010- Vancouver Winter Games, Omega decided to do away with the traditional starting pistol which was fired to mark the start of the race. The problem with the traditional pistol was that it gave a slightest of an advantage to an athlete closest to the pistol as the sound of the pistol was heard by the farthest athletes a fraction of seconds later.

The new electronic starting pistol comprises a flashgun and a sound generation box. When the starter presses its trigger, a sound is played in speakers, a light flash is emitted, and a start pulse is given to the timing device.

2012-London marked a debut of Omega Quantum Timer, which offered a resolution 100 times higher than its predecessor with five times more accuracy.

In these games, Omega has also introduced new starting blocks for runners that allowed them to measure each runner's reaction time entirely by the force applied against the back block, as opposed to the movement. This meant that it could detect the reaction times of every runner at the same time.

In 2016-Rio the latest version of Scan'O'Vision was used, which recorded up to 10,000 digital images per second thus making it easier to determine the winner in case of a hard tussle at the finishing line.

For the upcoming 2020-Tokyo games, Omega will carry the self-timing system tested in Swimming pools to the newly inducted sport of Speed Climbing where athletes will stop their own time by themselves.

The journey of timekeeping in Olympics which started with a single stopwatch which was carried in the Marathon from start to finish line on a bicycle will continue in 2020-Tokyo where 530-time keepers will be used to operate upon 400 tonnes of equipment with 200kms of wires and cables to display the scores across 350 sports specific scoreboards and 85 public scoreboards.

During these fascinating times, Omega the oldest timekeeper associated with the Olympics will mark its 29th outing with the Olympic movement.

The spirit of the Olympics is truly enriched throughout its 124 years' history by the technological innovations and the scientific methods that evolved the game not only for the athletes but for a normal viewer enjoying the largest sporting extravaganza in the world from the comfort of his/her living room.

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