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Keeping Time at the Olympics: Swiss Sophistication

By Reuters -  |  Posted 2008-07-10 Print this article Print

When Omega takes on the Olymipcs job again in Beijing in August, it will be using 175 km (109 miles) of cables and optical fiber and 420 tonnes of equipment, including transponders in shoes and GPS systems to time the 302 competitions.


This year, Omega will also branch out into the visual media by providing services to all television channels.

"For the first time, we have a contract with the host broadcaster. It means that when you see the swimming, you will see the names of the athletes in the lanes, the flags and the world record line," Berthaud said.

In 1968, Omega revolutionized pool events with the introduction of touch-pads that solved the problem of recording times when swimmers touched the wall at the end of a race.

Of course, being accurate does not always mean one will be popular.

But Bienne-based Omega has not been put off by the wrath of athletes who have been disqualified as a result of more advanced timekeeping technology.

It introduced new false-start detectors to the 1984 Olympics, despite violent reactions towards timekeepers after some competitors were disqualified in the 1982 Commonwealth Games swimming events, where the system was first used.

The starting systems in track events have also come a long way since the days of Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games, where athletes dug their own starting holes with small shovels.

But the pressure on Omega is greater too, because the stakes are so high.

In Beijing, athletes will be allowed just one false start before disqualification, but if a second athlete jumps the gun when the race is restarted then that person will face immediate disqualification, even if it is the first time that he or she committed the offence.

Each set of starting blocks will have a loudspeaker linked to the starter's pistol, meaning all competitors hear the start signal at the same time.

The false-start detection system measures each runner's reaction time, or the gap between the sound of the starter's gun and the response of the runner.

If the time measured is less than the time in which a person can possibly react, the timekeeper will signal a false start.

As the final days, hours and seconds before the Games tick down on Omega's giant clock in Tiananmen Square, the Swiss watch company is hoping for a smooth start of its own on August 8.

"Its a big, big project. It's now getting to the climax stages, the final stretch," said Chief Executive Stephen Urquhart.

(For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road to Beijing" here and see our blog at blogs.reuters.com/china)

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