ONE thing we know about the modern Olympic athlete is how far training regimes have come since the days of jogging along the beach to a Vangelis soundtrack. The science and tech involved is at the cutting edge, from the analysis of physical performance to training in wind tunnels and sleeping in oxygen tents.
If the science of sporting performance has come a long way, the science of sports timing has done ten laps of the track and a marathon to boot. The imminent Olympic Games here in London marks the 25th time the Swiss watch brand Omega has been responsible for timing the competitions. The importance of the job can’t be underestimated – races will be won and world records set by the smallest increments, and from that reputations and fortunes made or ruined.
No wonder, then, that the job should have historically fallen to watch companies, who in the pre-quartz era would participate in annual competitions to prove their chronometric excellence. In the days when Omega first timed the Games at Los Angeles in 1932, it was simply required to supply 30 high precision chronograph stopwatches, with results certified at fifths and tenths of a second. It must have been a success – at the next games in Berlin in 1936, 185 chronographs were brought from Omega’s HQ in Bienne in a single suitcase.
By contrast, London 2012 will see Omega bring a team of 326 people operating the most advanced timing systems ever invented. Where Jesse Owens was still digging starting holes in the sandy track in 1936, today starting blocks and swimmers’ launch pads are wired to respond to any false starts, while photo finishes can be determined to 1/10,000th of a second. For swimmers, touch pads at the end of the pool must withstand the pressure of waves created in the water, but respond to the very first microsecond of touch from a finishing competitor.
Woe betide the swimmer in a tight finish who looks up to see his time as he finishes, or miss-times his final push and glides to the pad rather than stroking, head-down, straight to it. Such was the case when Michael Phelps beat Serbia’s Milorad Cavic in the 100m butterfly in 2008 – Cavic lost out by a fraction of a second.
If visiting the Olympic park, a sense of technological progression in sports timing can be gleaned from an exhibition of old timing equipment hosted in Omega’s large boutique at Westfield Stratford. The strange, retro-sci fi machines with names like “Swim--matic” and Scan’O’Vision chart a passage not just of scientific advancement but rather satisfying design evolution as well.