How Accurate Is Olympic Timekeeping?

Keeping time at the Olympic Games is an arduous task that requires both technical expertise and the human touch, a spokesman for the game’s official timekeeper, OMEGA, tells JCK.

“The equipment has become increasingly sophisticated over the years and we have, in most sports, removed the ‘human eye’ element but every system has to be installed, operated and monitored by the very human members of our team,” says Peter Hurzeler, OMEGA Timing board member. “I think that the fact that around 450 of us come to each summer edition of the Olympic Games indicates that there is a considerable amount of human involvement in timekeeping.”

This year marked OMEGA’s 25th occasion as Olympic timekeeper since 1932 and its 80th anniversary since its first Olympic participation. OMEGA also served the same role in 1948, when London last hosted the Olympic Games.

During the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Calif., OMEGA used only 30 stop watches. For the 2012 Games, the company has used more than 40 tons of equipment, 450 professional timekeepers, and 800 trained volunteers to keep time. OMEGA also uses 320 sport-specific scoreboards and 180 km of cable and optical fiber.

The company introduced technological innovations to this year’s games. Its Quantum Timer boasts a resolution of one millionth of a second, 100 times greater than previous devices, and a precision of 0.1 parts per million, meaning that out of 10 million seconds, the maximum variation is just one second, which is five times as accurate as previous devices.

The new athletic starting block, introduced by OMEGA, also more precisely measures runner’s reaction times. “The runners’ reaction times are measured entirely by the measurement of force against the back block and not by movement,” Hurzeler says. “The new blocks can detect the reaction times of every runner—from children through world-class sprinters—without changing any settings on the device.”

If you’ve been watching the 2012 Olympic Games, you may have also noticed improvements in the swimming sector. This year, OMEGA introduced the “Swimming Show,” an innovative light system that allows spectators to more clearly recognize race winners. The lights, mounted on the starting blocks, indicate first, second, and third place winners.

But what happens when a first place winner isn’t clearly distinguished? “At the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, there was a tie in the men’s 50-metre freestyle swimming event between Gary Hall, Jr. and Anthony Ervin, both of the USA,” Hurzeler says. “Each swimmer had a time of 21.98 seconds, and each swimmer received a gold medal. For that event, only two golds and one bronze medal were awarded; there was no silver medalist.”

And then, of course, there are the timekeeping disputes. This year, an Olympic fencer learned the hard way that even with 2012’s technological advancements, human error still exists. According to BuzzFeed, the volunteer timing the match between South Korea’s Shin A-lam and Germany’s Britta Heidemann allegedly failed to start the clock on time, giving Heidemann extra seconds to win the match. Although A-lam protested, after reviewing the situation officials ruled Heidemann victorious. A-lam and her South Korean teammates went on to win silver in a separate team épée competition.

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