Why planning the Olympics is time well spent

Rio’s stopwatches, sensors and scoreboards have taken Omega's Alain Zobrist and his team three long years to perfect


Omega's job actually starts about three years before an Olympics opening ceremony. We’ve had people in Rio for all that time because, even though the venues might not have broken ground three years out, we have a lot of technical requirements and, of course, we have to do test runs as early as we can. In Rio, every sport has already had trial events to make sure the systems are working correctly.

People sometimes ask me if we have reached the ultimate in the measurement of an athlete’s performance. After all, we have the ability to measure down to a millionth of a second, which is beyond the requirements of individual sports. This is then adjusted to the event in question – so if it’s an athletics competition, we give the result in hundredths of a second, if it’s track cycling, in thousandths, and so on. And this time, in Rio, we have much the same scale of operation as we were in London – about 450 tons of equipment and a team of around 480 technicians, plus 800 to 1,000 volunteers. So is there any way to improve how we time Olympic events? The answer is yes.

Our innovation comes from three main areas. Firstly, the athletes, who let us know about ways we can help them perform better and improve their times in their particular disciplines. Suggestions and input might also come from the judges, who apply our timings, then finally from our technicians. If there is new technology on the market that can be adapted to timing, they will suggest we incorporate it. The rule is, though, that we never debut any technology at the Olympics. We would always test and test our innovations in the labs with athletes first, and then trial them at smaller events between the Games before we inaugurate them at the main event.

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In Rio, we have two innovations in swimming that, although they don’t affect the actual timing of the event, do influence the athletes’ overall performance. One example is a mechanical backstroke start device – a bar – that helps the swimmers take off faster. There is also a digital lap-counter, which sits at the bottom of the pool, enabling the distance swimmers to tell the number of lengths remaining without lifting their heads from the water. It changes the lap number every time the competitor touches his or her pad at the end of each lane. That Swim-O-Matic touch pad has hardly changed since its Olympic debut in Mexico City in 1968 – swimmers are the only athletes in the Games who actually stop their own clock, by putting pressure on the pad.

We’ve also improved the photo-finish camera yet again, with 10,000 pictures a second and better resolution of the images, plus adjustable heights for the sensors – which is great for the Paralympics’ wheelchair races. The photo finish is a key piece of equipment, and has been ever since its debut in London in 1948. There’s also a new and more sensitive false-start system, which, if an athlete does go off early, will allow the judges to know who was responsible. There’s a very precise new system for archery, where a laser grid over the target records precisely where the arrow hits. Lastly, golf is back in the Olympics, and, here, the new technology is for the spectators, where the scoreboard will provide real-time information about power, angles, speed and the trajectory of the ball after it has been played.

So, although it might seem that Omega can’t get any more accurate when it comes to timing, there are always fresh ideas and exciting new concepts coming along every four years – and Rio is no exception.

ALAIN ZOBRIST is CEO of Omega Timing. An economist by training, he says a passion for sport is an essential requirement for his job: ‘You’ve got to love the way athletes strive to go higher and faster and longer, and want to be part of that’; omegawatches.com

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