30 tons of equipment, 300 timers, and the assistance of 350 volunteers. Omega’s figures for the coordination of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang this February, of which the Swiss brand was the official timekeeper, are endlessly impressive.
Behind this infrastructure, as behind the scenes of athletics meetings, skiing world cups, Blancpain GT Series automobile competitions, Six Nations Rugby Championships, Tour de France bike races, or the NBA games sponsored by Tissot – or even the prestigious CIS equestrian competitions supported by Longines throughout the world – you’ll find the same Swatch Group company: Swiss Timing, world leader of sports timing.
The precision offered by Swiss Timing now reaches 10/1000 of a second; but the times measured depend on the regulations of the partner federations.
You will almost never see its name take centre stage. But backstage, the brand is intensely active. In February, Europa Star had the chance to visit the brand’s premises in Corgémont, in the Bernese Jura. It was quiet, since most of the employees were still in South Korea. Founded in 1972 in order for Longines and Omega to join forces in sports timing, then grouped together under one roof in 1988 by Nicolas Hayek Sr., the company has its work cut out for it, since the Olympics equipment is under warranty until... 2032!
Sensors up close and personal
The company, which employs more than 400 people on three sites in Switzerland and Europe, can time athletes’ performances in no fewer than 135 athletic disciplines. One of the true changes of direction in its history was the appearance of the transponder (which emits signals from precise geographic points) marking the transition from the human hand to the machine and making it possible to provide increasingly precise data.
Time measurement continues to progress each year. Several innovations marked the recent Olympic Games in South Korea, which Omega “covered” for the 28th time in its history, beginning with Los Angeles in 1932 (for which thirty of the brand’s stopwatches were sent to the United States and provided to the judges there). It is worth mentioning two innovations in South Korea which illustrate the power of Swiss Timing.
During the ice hockey competition, each player’s back was equipped with a movement sensor which registered data and information in real time that could instantly be sent to television viewers or used subsequently for post-game analyses. Even the referee was equipped with a whistle detection system that enabled him or her to communicate with the timing station through a microphone in order to stop the watch as soon as the whistle was blown (making it possible to save at least half a minute compared to the performance of manual timers).
For the ski jumping competition, movement sensors were installed on the athletes’ skis, directly registering the speed of each participant during the run, upon lift-off, at 20 metres, and upon landing. The system made it possible to measure various jumping techniques, right down to the angles formed by the athletes’ skis. This data has quickly become essential, not only for the spectators, in the form of times and graphics displayed on the screen, but also to the athletes themselves and their coaches, since it can enable them to improve their performances.
Who does athletic performance data belong to?
One of the hot topics of the moment specifically concerns the “intellectual property” of the data gathered by an official timer.
For the time being, the rules – where there are any – are not uniform. However, selling data is part of Swiss Timing business model. For example, during Blancpain GT Series automobile competitions, the SRO race organiser provides the data gathered to the teams and car manufacturers. This is part of a general service included in the participants’ registration. Today’s coaches and public are clamouring for an increasing amount of statistics. The phenomenon makes itself felt to the point where, in the stadium, an increasing number of spectators appear to be captivated by their smartphone screens rather than directly watching the competition itself...
Swiss Timing also sells equipment to third parties, from photo-finish cameras to photoelectric cells to fully equipped swimming pools.
The secrets of the photo finish
The precision offered by Swiss Timing now reaches 10/1000 of a second; but the times measured depend on the regulations of the partner federations. Thus in road biking, time is measured to the second, while in speedway biking it is measured to 1/1000 of a second. The famous “photo finish” is probably one of the bestknown services offered by the company, and one that keeps spectators holding their breath. Photoelectric cells placed on the finish line provide the result, which is instantly displayed on the stadium and television screens. But only the image of the photo finish provides the official time, and only the judges are qualified to establish the final result, which can lead to slight corrections being made to the time measured by the cells.
Indeed, the official time is measured by a camera filming a “line” of 3 mm along the precise finish. Moreover, a chip (generally the same size as a stamp) installed in the bib of each athlete gives the order in which each one crosses the finish line, for added security. However, in certain trials, it has happened that despite precision to 1/1000 of a second, it remained impossible to decide which athlete was the winner!
The question is, where on the athlete’s body to place the photo finish cursor? It depends on the discipline: the torso for the 100-metre sprinter, the tip of the shoe for the long-distance runner, the top of the skate blade for the speed skater, and so on. Each federation has its own rule.
Foremost Swiss ambassador?
Even more than the watches that we admire on the wrists of stars, the timing of competitions followed by millions of spectators throughout the world offers incredible visibility to Swiss watchmaking.
However, strict rules regulate logo displays: at the Olympic Games, the IOC sets the quotas of logo identification that will be shown on television per day and per sport. The height of the Omega logos on the instruments or screens in the stadium leaves nothing to chance, either: the logo may not exceed one-tenth of the total height of the object in question, for a maximum of 10 cm. The only element that has not changed since the first Olympic Games of modern times, held in Athens in 1896, is the bell indicating the last lap. A bell, as Swiss as it gets!