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Timing the Olympic Games

HISTORY OF WATCHMAKING

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April 2021


Timing the Olympic Games

If the Olympic Games finally take place this summer in Tokyo, it won’t be Seiko that will be responsible for timekeeping (unlike the Tokyo Olympics in 1964), but Omega. For the past fifteen years or so, the Swiss manufacturer has made its participation in the Olympics a central element of its storytelling, the aim being to reinforce its historical roots as a high-precision brand. It often presents itself as the timekeeper of the Games since 1932. However, the history of the relationship between the Olympic Games and watch companies is much more complex, as the Europa Star archives show.

T

he origins of watch manufacturers providing timekeeping services to the organisers of sporting events date back to the turn of the 20th century. Companies such as Heuer, Longines and Omega had the technical equipment to measure sporting events. They understood very early on the impact of sports timekeeping in terms of advertising. Participation in major popular events helped to convey the image of high-precision brands. In 1915, Alfred Pfister, Longines’ technical director, wrote in his annual report: “Although this timekeeping service is not profitable, it is nevertheless of considerable importance in establishing the reputation of our brand.”

The Longines Gold Medal watch for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (top right)
The Longines Gold Medal watch for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (top right)
©Europa Star 1984

However, since the 1950s in particular, watch manufacturers have invested increasingly large sums in perfecting their timekeeping equipment and incorporating their participation in major sporting events, such as the Olympic Games, into their communication. For Seiko, which had adopted the strategic objective of establishing itself as the world’s leading watch company through the mass production of high-quality watches, their appointment as official timekeeper for the Tokyo Games in 1964 was a communications success. For the first time, it was not the Swiss who were measuring sporting achievements.

In 1964, Seiko was named the official timekeeper for the Tokyo Olympic Games – a turning point in the history of the Japanese brand.
In 1964, Seiko was named the official timekeeper for the Tokyo Olympic Games – a turning point in the history of the Japanese brand.
©Europa Star 1964

While the efforts of the Japanese watchmaking industry were concentrated on one main company, in Switzerland a large number of brands launched sports watch models, seeking to benefit from the boom in grassroots sport, relayed by rapidly multiplying television broadcasts. In 1968, on the occasion of the Mexico Games, Europa Star published a special issue presenting the wide variety of these models and brands, among them Heuer-Leonidas watches and Longines, but, paradoxically, no Omega.

Several Swiss brands launched models dedicated to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, including Heuer-Leonidas.
Several Swiss brands launched models dedicated to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, including Heuer-Leonidas.
©Europa Star 1968

Faced with competition from Japan, Swiss watchmakers abandoned the fierce rivalry that had defined their relationship for several decades and decided to collaborate. The challenge was to safeguard the reputation of the Swiss watch throughout the world, rather than promoting one brand over another. After five years of negotiations, the Swiss Watchmaking Federation, Longines and Omega founded the Société Suisse de Chronométrage Sportif SA in 1972, which soon took the name Swiss Timing. Heuer joined in 1973. This marriage led to the sharing of timekeeping responsibilities between the various brands, depending on the event and the discipline. For example, at the 1972 Munich Games, Longines took charge of various events, including swimming, cycling, boxing and gymnastics.

At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Longines highlighted its expertise in sports timekeeping. The technical expenses budgeted for the event “exceeded two million Swiss francs”.
At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Longines highlighted its expertise in sports timekeeping. The technical expenses budgeted for the event “exceeded two million Swiss francs”.
©Europa Star 1972

Heuer-Leonidas, meanwhile, developed timing instruments for the Lake Placid Winter Games (1980) before leaving Swiss Timing shortly afterwards.

Heuer-Leonidas was the official timekeeper of the 1980 Olympic Winter Games.
Heuer-Leonidas was the official timekeeper of the 1980 Olympic Winter Games.
©Europa Star 1979

Swiss Timing became part of the Swatch Group when it was founded in 1983. At first, the challenge was still to defend the image of Switzerland as the leading watchmaking nation against Seiko, which was awarded the timekeeping role for the Barcelona Games (1992).

After the Tokyo Games in 1964 and the Sapporo Games in 1972, Seiko was again appointed Official Timekeeper for the Barcelona Games in 1992.
After the Tokyo Games in 1964 and the Sapporo Games in 1972, Seiko was again appointed Official Timekeeper for the Barcelona Games in 1992.
©Europa Star 1993

Also during the 1990s, various brands were promoted at the Games timed by Swiss Timing, notably Swatch, whose success was at its peak. Longines still made use of its participation in several Olympic Games in this ad presented in 1992.

A retrospective of Longines' involvement in sporting achievements throughout its history.
A retrospective of Longines’ involvement in sporting achievements throughout its history.
©Europa Star 1992

The beginning of the 21st century, with the Beijing Games (2008), and the tremendous growth of Omega sales in China, marked a major turning point in terms of communication. Official timekeeping for the Olympic Games became an integral part of Omega’s storytelling, and the company was given the exclusive right within the Swatch Group to use this event in its communication.

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