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How do you measure up at the Olympics?

Lane-watchers, touch pads, stop watches and time triggers

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Timing is everything

“For the spectators and the fans at an Olympic Games, everything is remembered in terms of the results,” a spokesman for Omega told us. “The accurate timing allows us to compare one edition of the Games with the others. All of us live for Olympic and World records and in order to keep track of them, every event at every Games has to be timed or measured with complete accuracy.”

And it isn’t just about the fans, he continues. It matters to the athletes and to the Games as an institution: “Athletes preparing for the Olympic Games have specific times in mind, based on their own previous performances and personal bests. The Olympic Games are the highest profile sporting events on Earth. Their appeal depends significantly on the accuracy of the timekeeping and the timely display and distribution of the results.”

In London this summer, Olympic officials will require results measured down to the thousandth of a second. Keeping track of timings to that degree rules the human eye out of the equation for good, but we’ve been losing ground to the machines for some time.

In 1932 Omega was asked to supply 30 chronographs capable of recording times down to tenths of a second. By the time the 1936 Games were held in Berlin, the requirement had swollen to a more impressive 185 chronographs, but the technology itself had stayed the same. It wasn’t until after the war that we start to see technology used that hints at the stuff we use today.

1948 was, according to Omega, the first Olympiad at which technology began to outperform humans. At the Winter Games in St. Moritz, Omega introduced the “cellular photoelectric eye” and the timing was triggered automatically by the opening of the starting gates. The summer Games, held in the same year, also saw the birth of the photo finish, as for the first time, the British Race Finish Recording company used an electronic eye “the Magic Eye” to record the moment the race winner crossed the finish line.

The OMEGA Photosprint (OPS1) from 1963 with ALPA camera
and world's first zoom lens. The camera was equipped with
a tiny vertical opening and the film with a time strip.

By 1952 the Magic Eye technology had been renamed “Photo-finish” and was synched up with timers capable of recording finishing times down to the nearest 100th of a second.

As we saw earlier, the lane-watchers in swimming were superseded by technology in 1968 with the introduction of the “swim-o-matic” touch pads that allowed competitors to stop the clock by touching the side of the pool. And the old fashioned starting pistol has already gone the way of the stop watch, having been replaced by a phaser-esque starting gun that simultaneously makes a sound (which is relayed to speakers behind each athlete, so that there can be no doubt that everyone hears the starting gun at the same time), produces a flash of light – a second cue that the race has begun, and triggers the timer. False starts are registered by pressing the trigger a second time within a two-second window. As well as being more accurate, Omega tells us it is easier to get the new starting guns through security at airports, too.

London 2012 is a veritable tech fest, in fact. In London this year, Omega will send will be more than 450 timekeepers and data handlers, supported by 400 tonnes of equipment, some 180km of cabling and optical fibre to link the timing systems with 80 public scoreboards and 320 sport-specific scoreboards. This Olympics will also see new timing blocks that track reaction time based not on movement of the sprinters in the blocks, but by measuring the force against the blocks once the athlete starts to run. And the new “Quantum” timing system, for land-based and aquatic disciplines, can slice time into microseconds, millionths of a second, and is accurate to one part in a million – five times better than its immediate predecessor.

Each new technology brought into the Games – like brand new starting blocks this year - has to go through rigorous checks to make sure it does what it is supposed to.

Omega’s spokesman told us: “Each new piece of equipment is developed in tested extensively by top-class athletes who ensure that it functions perfectly and meets the requirements of each sport. We work closely with the sporting federations who give us feedback and ultimately approve every timekeeping device.”

So, when the gold medals start being handed out, and the world records start rolling in, give a small thought to the work that goes into making sure they are right. And if anyone manages to cover the possibly 100.01m faster than Usain Bolt, the time they post will be very precise and accurate indeed. ®

*This fact is taken from The Looniness of the Long Distance Runner, by Russell Taylor. Recommended reading for all runners. Even, or perhaps especially, for armchair ones.

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