ZURICH (Reuters) - When Omega first kept time at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, it had one technician and 30 stopwatches. For the 1936 Games, watchmaker Paul-Louis Guignard took one suitcase with 185 chronographs to Berlin.
When Omega takes on the job again in Beijing in August, it will be using 175 km (109 miles) of cables and optical fiber and 420 tonnes of equipment, including transponders in shoes and GPS systems to time the 302 competitions.
This is the 23rd time Omega, part of the world’s largest watchmaker Swatch Group, will take on the role of official timekeeper, and it has an array of high-tech gadgets to make sure its results are irreproachable.
“We have to be ready and we have to make it very reliable and very accurate when it is to measure someone’s performance. The athletes are training for years,” said Christophe Berthaud, head of Swiss Timing, which is also part of the Swatch Group.
Omega is among the Games’ top 12 global sponsors and has marketing rights to use the Olympics logo worldwide.
The Games offer the watchmaker one of the most effective international marketing platforms in the world, reaching billions of people in over 200 countries and territories, including millions of brand-conscious Chinese.
Swatch, which says it expects double-digit sales growth in 2008, has benefited from rising demand for its top-range watches as part of a worldwide boom for luxury goods, including new consumers from fast-growing China.
At the 1932 Games, official results were given at 10ths of a second. Results were first recorded to the nearest 100th of a second in 1952, ushering in the era of quartz and electronics.
Things have come a long way since then.
This year, Omega will use the Scan’O’Vision photo-finish camera at the finish line of sprints, hurdles and other races, as well as new timing, scoring and false-start systems.
“The accuracy of the system that you are using to measure the timing is of utmost importance. That is why we have very sophisticated systems with the photo-finish camera,” Berthaud said.
“Every 2,000th of a second we have an image of what happens and then all these are put into the computer and at the end of the race we reveal an image on the time-base in order to exactly know at what time the breast of the athlete crossed the line.”
The company is also using technology based on global positioning systems (GPS) for rowing and sailing.
“(In rowing), we take the position of each boat five times per second and knowing this we can compare the distance between the different boats,” Berthaud said.
“We define the number of strokes per second and this is more information that you can give to the spectators ... and also to the coaches,” he said.
“They can review after the race what the strategy was, how the other (competitors) behaved and where they made a mistake.”
Marathon runners will have a transponder attached to one shoe, and radio frequency identification (RFID) will be used to track them and record their times at specific intervals as they pound the course’s 26 miles 385 yards (42.195-km).
The transponder is a tiny, lightweight electronic device that can receive and respond to a radio signal.
This year, Omega will also branch out into the visual media by providing services to all television channels.
“For the first time, we have a contract with the host broadcaster. It means that when you see the swimming, you will see the names of the athletes in the lanes, the flags and the world record line,” Berthaud said.
In 1968, Omega revolutionized pool events with the introduction of touch-pads that solved the problem of recording times when swimmers touched the wall at the end of a race.
Of course, being accurate does not always mean one will be popular.
But Bienne-based Omega has not been put off by the wrath of athletes who have been disqualified as a result of more advanced timekeeping technology.
It introduced new false-start detectors to the 1984 Olympics, despite violent reactions towards timekeepers after some competitors were disqualified in the 1982 Commonwealth Games swimming events, where the system was first used.
The starting systems in track events have also come a long way since the days of Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games, where athletes dug their own starting holes with small shovels.
But the pressure on Omega is greater too, because the stakes are so high.
In Beijing, athletes will be allowed just one false start before disqualification, but if a second athlete jumps the gun when the race is restarted then that person will face immediate disqualification, even if it is the first time that he or she committed the offence.
Each set of starting blocks will have a loudspeaker linked to the starter’s pistol, meaning all competitors hear the start signal at the same time.
The false-start detection system measures each runner’s reaction time, or the gap between the sound of the starter’s gun and the response of the runner.
If the time measured is less than the time in which a person can possibly react, the timekeeper will signal a false start.
As the final days, hours and seconds before the Games tick down on Omega’s giant clock in Tiananmen Square, the Swiss watch company is hoping for a smooth start of its own on August 8.
“Its a big, big project. It’s now getting to the climax stages, the final stretch,” said Chief Executive Stephen Urquhart.