Sydney Olympics: A question of timing

The official finish photo of Michael Johnson (United States) setting a world record of 19.32 seconds in the 200 metre final in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Keystone

Athletes competing in the Olympic Games in Sydney will hardly give a thought to one vital backstage activity that can make all the difference.

This content was published on September 10, 2000 minutes

Only after they have performed to their physical limits will they probably look back at what matters most - the scoreboard with details of their time and achievement.

It is here, in the art of timing, that over the years the Swiss have proved they are real champions, satisfying the demanding needs of the organisers for precision and reliability.

Television viewers around the globe will see the name "Swatch" on all the timing activities at the 2000 Sydney Games as official timekeeper. However, the timing itself will be carried out by Swiss Timing, a company of the Swatch Group formed in 1972 but whose tradition goes back to 1932.

The Games represent more than 35 disciplines, not only track and field events, but also other sports including aquatics, archery, badminton, boxing, cycling, equestrian, fencing...the list goes through the alphabet to weightlifting, wrestling and yachting.

They all have one thing on common - the need for accurate timing, whether it is the speed of a tennis ball, the split time of marathon runners every five kilometres or the number of strokes per minute of a crew in a rowing event.

Swiss Timing, which normally has a staff of around 55, has an army of 200 people to cover all the events in Sydney and the equipment tops the 150 tonne mark.

In comparison, last month's Golden League athletic meeting in Zurich required only six people and three tonnes of equipment for the timing.

"The volume of equipment and number of technicians necessary to time these contests is therefore the major problem," says Peter Hürzeler, marketing director of Swiss Timing.

"It illustrates the spectacular growth in requirements where timing, display, data processing and the transmission of results to the television companies are concerned," he adds.

The Swiss became actively involved in sports timing in 1932 when the Omega watch company of Biel was made official timekeeper of the Los Angeles Olympics. It was the first time that an organiser asked one manufacturer alone to supply identical stop watches, all of which had an observatory rating certificate.

Omega has been the company most heavily involved in sports timing, having participated in 21 Olympic Games.

Another Swiss watch company, Longines, has also been involved in sports timing and teamed up with Omega in 1972 to form Swiss Timing. Both companies had reached the conclusion by then that no single company could handle the demands of Olympic timing on their own without hampering other areas of business.

The timing of major sports events is all about confidence, says Peter Hürzeler. "At the world swimming championships in Perth in 1991, the United States achieved a new world record. But the US team was disqualified because our equipment showed that one girl left the starting block before her team mate had touched the wall," he said.

"Nobody came to us to ask if the decision was right or wrong. People said that they knew we were perfect, so there was no discussion. That means confidence," he added.

Swiss Timing says in terms of technology, it is way ahead of the demands of the International Amateur Athletics Association. For example, the company produced 17 innovations for the 1996 games in Atlanta - but just six were introduced.

Novelties at Sydney include loudspeakers behind track starting blocks, so every competitor will hear the starting gun at exactly the same time, and marathon runners will have tiny transponders on their shoes - devices for receiving a radio signal and automatically transmitting a different signal - so exact timing can be made.

by Robert Brookes

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