Watchmaking in Japan

A history of sports timekeeping


August 2019

A history of sports timekeeping

The Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 1964 changed Seiko for ever. That edition, the first ‘technological’ Olympics, brought the Japanese company into the international arena. The numerous innovations it developed at that time still mark the group’s image today.


n 1964, Seiko already had a long and rich history behind it in Japan as a precursor of the watchmaking tradition in that island state. But the brand was seeking a more international thrust. The Olympic Games held in Tokyo that year, a symbol of rebirth and a showcase for the ’new‘, post-war Japan, provided the perfect opportunity. Shoji Hattori went all out for it and obtained the mandate to time the competitions. It was a watershed moment in the brand’s history.

Because these Olympics also aimed to be the first ‘technological’ games, and on that count Seiko delivered… “Just imagine: no fewer than 1,278 devices were designed especially for the competition!” exclaims Robert Wilson, a British veteran of the Japanese brand and one of the best ’bridgebuilders’ between the European and Nippon watchmaking cultures. "The company’s reputation skyrocketed. The creation of a new generation of chronometers was enough to convince the sports establishment of the time, who hadn’t even heard of the company before!”
Seiko would subsequently be selected as timekeeper for a further five Olympic Games (as well as numerous Asian and Commonwealth Games) – until the mandate went to Omega and the Swatch Group subsidiary, Swiss Timing. We’ll come back to that in the next episode of this series on sports timekeeping.

From quartz to printer

But back to 1964: those Olympic Games triggered a technological leap at Seiko in several respects. Certain innovations were subsequently applied to the production of regular watches. Here are some of the most important ones: a new generation of high-precision chronometers; the first electronic display board; and the first portable quartz chronometer, the precision of which, paradoxically, many people mistrusted!

On another level, as information technology developed the results had to be supplied to journalists faster. That was when the company first began producing printers, resulting in the creation of Epson, which today is by far the most important business line of the Seiko-Epson Corporation. Bolstered by these successes, Seiko became the official timekeeper of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) starting with the World Indoor Games in Paris in 1985 and the World Athletics Championships in Rome in 1987 – a mandate it still holds. “Since then, we’ve covered 150 competitions, including the World Championships in London this year, with 2,034 athletes from 200 countries in 47 disciplines,” says an emphatic Robert Wilson. “Our Seiko Timing Services structure supplies these services to the IAAF free of charge. We pay a small amount of sponsoring, but it’s a fraction of the cost of the equipment."

A crack team

And on that subject, Europa Star had the chance of going backstage and seeing how the timekeeping was done at the 2017 London World Athletics Championships.

The dedicated team is made up of 60 engineers, mostly British, as well as Japanese. The equipment fits into eight containers and it’s not cheap... One scoreboard costs a hefty 500,000 dollars and Seiko deploys no fewer than eight during the championships, all in the highly recognisable yellow ‘official timekeeper’ colour of such competitions. This one, notably, marked the last official appearance of the legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt (world record holder in the flagship disciplines of the 100 and 200 metres). Of course, backstage, in front of the screens that line the box reserved for Seiko’s timekeepers – who are in permanent contact with the race officials – you soon realise that the stopwatch of yore has long been replaced by an entirely automated measuring system, which is, moreover, increasingly digitalised.

In a fraction of a second, the results of the competitions are displayed on the giant screens placed around London’s Olympic stadium.

In a fraction of a second, the results of the competitions are displayed on the giant screens placed around London’s Olympic stadium. The spectators, whether in the stadium or in front of their TV, don’t like to be kept waiting! But they may have to wait a little longer for confirmation of the actual result, which explains the minor adjustments that may occur between the times issued immediately afterwards and the official results.

A few graphics at the end of this article show the technologies that Seiko covers today, from starting system to photo finish (note that it’s an athlete’s torso that counts for the result, it’s not worth stretching your arms out), and in between that measurement of distances and wind speed, and the times of the marathon runners who run outside the stadium equipped with a transponder. One general trend is becoming apparent quite apart from the computerisation of procedures: video installations are increasingly ubiquitous and Seiko is a pioneer in this type of innovation.

A history of sports timekeeping

What’s the return on investment?

A dedicated team, ultra-sophisticated equipment, coverage of numerous competitions… but what does Seiko get in return? “There’s no real way of measuring the return on investment,” replies the experienced Robert Wilson. “At the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 I really noticed a clear correlation between our timekeeping of the competitions and a sales boom, especially in Spain. That’s no longer the case today.”

This business is not a profit centre for Seiko, unlike at Swiss Timing, for example. So why do they persist in doing it? “First of all for logical reasons of visibility, with 700,000 people at the stadium over ten days and an accumulated TV and online audience of 6 billion people for the World Championships! Our logo is in full view on the screens and we also issue a special watch for the occasion.”

There are also ‘sentimental’ reasons, as Robert Wilson goes on to explain: “All these instruments can lead to innovations, like they did in 1964, which was a historic milestone in our development; so sport is a part of our history and our identity and we want to give something back to this community that has helped us so much."

In actual fact, Seiko has the capacity to cover many more competitions: “If, like us, you have the wherewithal to time swimming and athletics, you can time anything, from cycling to motorsports and regattas!" To their great regret, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo will not be timed by Seiko like the historic Games of 1964. So the return to home ground will have to wait a little longer. But the Japanese watchmakers are known for their perseverance and long-term vision – unlike their Swiss counterparts, very often… So the watchword is – patience!