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races often won or lost by split seconds

The photo finish is a Swiss invention

(Keystone)

Sport has long been a showcase for the Swiss watch industry. Virtually every international competition is handled by a Swiss brand.

Longines, Tissot, Tag Heuer, Omega and Swatch are big players at the Olympics, world ski and cycling championships, swimming meets, show jumping and gymnastics.

The Olympic Games are the world's most watched sporting event. Omega spent SFr10 million on this year's winter games in Turin alone.

But its logo was one of the few broadcast by the world's television stations during the entire competition.

"It's obvious that these events are an extraordinary showcase," says Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch industry.

"For our companies, timekeeping is essentially a marketing tool."

While it is difficult to estimate how much of a return the watchmakers receive, the investment in time and money is immense.

"In fact, we have too much work," Peter Hürzeler, head of Swiss Timing, admits. Swiss Timing is a Swatch company that handles timekeeping for the group's brands that sign contracts with sporting federations.

"Big events like the Asian Games and the Beijing Summer Olympics come on top of our regular work," Hürzeler says.

No errors allowed

At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the timekeeping team had 310 engineers and specialists on site to keep 320 tons of material working. For the winter games in Turin this year, they had to lay down over 100 kilometres of telephone lines and fibre optics

cables.

"We have long-term contracts with the International Olympic Committee as well as many other national and international federations. We can't really complain."

These contracts are the result of the trust shown by federations, according to Hürzeler, who says there can be no room for error when hundreds of a second can make the difference between winning and losing.

"We have to be credible," he says.

The choice of material is crucial for timekeeping. While the quartz in a standard wristwatch oscillates 27,000 times every second, that frequency reaches 25 million for

chronographic equipment.

The famous photo finish developed by Omega in 1946 is now taken by a camera that can take up to 10,000 pictures a second, but Hürzeler says the human factor cannot be overlooked.

"Equipment accounts for only 30 per cent of the quality of timekeeping."

He adds that Swiss timekeeping's virtual monopoly – Japan's Seiko is the only potential competitor – is also political to a certain extent.

"Swiss neutrality helps," he admits. "We are considered impartial and accepted by everyone. It's important in our line of work."

swissinfo

Key facts

Swiss Timing was created in 1972.
Since then, it has handled timekeeping at every Olympic games.
The company has signed contracts for Omega ahead of the 2008 Beijing games, the 2010 games in Vancouver and London 2012.

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