The concept of timekeeping in professional sport has come a long way in half a century and no other partnership in the world has been more enduring than OMEGA and the Olympic Games.
Teaming up for the very first time in the 1932 Los Angeles games with no more than thirty stopwatches to time events, Omega began their coveted history as the Game’s official timekeeper. Fast forward to Rio in 2016 and that partnership is now in its 27th iteration as part of a global sporting spectacle watched by billions from around the world.
The question still beckons after more than half a century though: Why hasn’t any other watchmaker stepped up to this monumental task of timing for the Olympics?
We spent a moment to chat to the CEO of OMEGA Timing, Alain Zobrist, to find out how the Swiss watchmaker has continually merged sport timing with innovation and technology to achieve precision results for athletes, officials and viewers alike on a global scale.
“It takes 480 timekeepers flown to Rio, 450 tonnes of equipment shipped, and 200km of cabling to make it all possible.”
The newest toy from OMEGA at this year’s Olympic Games is a photo finish camera called MYRIA, a device which can snap up to 10,000 images per second at the finish line leaving chances of miscalculation of victory down to a virtual zero. The invention of this camera first came about in 1948 and is today used across multiple disciplines including track cycling, marathon, walking and athletics.
“Innovation in sports technology, same as the watches, is an integrated part of what we do,” says Zobrist.
“That history we have with the Olympic Games and time keeping for sports competition became an integrated part of our company’s history. It’s a very important aspect of what we do at OMEGA today.”
In order to achieve this level of precision timing demanded at the highest level of sport from all parties involved, Omega has to work extremely close to with judges and representatives to develop technology that is used to officialise results. No one timing mechanism is the same for every sport and it is this requisite that turns the simple concept of time into a monumental challenge.
“We develop the timing equipment according to rules and the specifics of every single sport,” says Zobrist.
“In Rio we have 28 sports so we like to say that we have 28 individual solutions designed specifically for those individual practices.”
From a logistical viewpoint, that equates to 480 timekeepers flown to Rio, 450 tonnes of equipment shipped, and 200km of cabling to make it all possible. Of course that’s only a snapshot of what it takes.
OMEGA started working on the Olympics timekeeping project three years prior to the game where the company’s very first timekeepers relocated to the city permanently to lay the foundations. This team would eventually grow up to fifty and more as the Games grew closer to its commencement date.
“We have test events the year before the start of the Olympics where all the sports venues and technology are tested. It’s a big project and a lot of logistical work. But that’s what we’ve done for almost a hundred years,” Zobrist explains.
Given how accustomed OMEGA is to tackling this process, Zobrist says that no single sport is harder to time than the other. Complexity however does creep in with one event flagged as the most demanding on their machines and man power. Athletics.
“You would have field events and track events happening at the same time. It’s also the event that we deploy the most people. A team of 40 experts out of 480 timekeepers that are dedicated to Athletics only.”
These timing experts are split into three locations across the stadium: On the field of play to assist the officials and judges, at the finish line and in the dedicated timing room where all the data generated from the field of play is collected and judged.
Once these results are judged they go into another room with housing a large contingency of the OMEGA team who manage the results and check over them before they are formatted for display on the digital scoreboards and screens across the stadium.
Besides the aforementioned MYRIA camera, some of the most intuitive technology OMEGA has brought to this year’s games includes advanced sensors in starting blocks for the track and pool. These systems signal a false start if it detects that a reaction time of less than 100 milliseconds has occurred after the start.
Even golf which made its Olympic debut at this year’s games doesn’t escape the precision measurements of OMEGA. The Swiss maestros have created a small radar which can retrieve swing information in real time before sending it to a control room where it is re-routed onto a scoreboard to display information such as ball speed, drive height and distance all within one hundred milliseconds.
How does one watchmaker acquire such an extensive range of timing ingenuity?
“It comes from a few different streams,” says Zobrist.
“Some ideas would come from officials and international sports governing bodies. We’re trying to implement what they ask us to and what they think will help performance.”
“We involve them in the very beginning at the development phase, the homologation phase, right until we bring the new device to competition.”
“Another way will come from our timekeepers who already know sports very well.”
Those who have been watching the Rio Games will notice the strong crosswinds that have wreaked havoc with Rowing competitors, even causing some to capsize. When it comes to precision equipment designed to do one job well, factors such as climate affecting the integrity of sensors and vital equipment can be overlooked.
Not so, according to Zobrist. He says that the requirements are always the same no matter which Games it is when it comes to temperature and environment.
“We have clear guidelines on how they should function,” he says.
“It’s integrated testing in our labs where equipment is tested according to different weather conditions.”
Given all this talk about cutting-edge technology, it’s a sight to behold when Zobrist talks about the Bronze Bell, the most traditional piece of equipment used in the Olympics today.
“It’s an integrated part of sports competition since 1896 and it is still part of rules of certain sports,” says Zobrist.
“Mainly those sports where you run in loops like athletics, marathon, cycling, they still use the bell. It’s also a hint back to the rich history of OMEGA in sports.”
The question on everyone’s lips of course is simple: Whether any of these precise measuring techniques and innovations will make its way into consumer OMEGA watches. Zobrist believes this is a good question.
“A long time ago timekeeping for sports competition was done with a hand stopwatch. Now everything is moving to computers and devices which allows for more precision timing through the elimination of human reaction time.”
“What has remained the same are the values of time – the values of precision, accuracy and attention to detail. How they are integrated in watches today or how they will do so in future I can’t tell, but I know there will definitely be opportunities out there.”
From Zobrist’s forecast, the future of sport timing appears to be in very capable hands with an inkling of the possibility that such technology could filter down into OMEGA’s timepieces.
Until then, those wondering what the future of sports timing has in store for future games will just have to hang ten. The technological marvel that is OMEGA Swiss timing at Rio is already a sight to behold and will continue to be well into the future.