Amongst the many brands present at the London Olympics as sponsors, Omega is playing a particularly important role, for the 25th time. In fact the maison is celebrating the 80th anniversary of their presence at the Games, for which they have been Official Timekeeper 25 times. Another significant fact is that at the previous London Games, 1948, Omega pioneered the introduction of photo-electric cells, athletes' starting block, and the slit photofinish camera, marking the birth of modern sports timekeeping.
Timekeeping technology in sports has developed progressively over the decades. Before 1912, hand-held mechanical stopwatches were used, and at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, electric stopwatches were adopted for the first time. But they were still manually activated, and so accuracy was still in tenths of a second. Thomas Burke's time in the 100 metres is recorded at 12.0 seconds, with a margin of error of 0.2 seconds, corresponding to a distance of 2 metres on the track!
By 1932, the first year in which Omega was Official Timekeeper, electric chronographs were standard, but results were still recorded in fifths and tenths of a second. Jesse Owens stopped the clock at 10.3 seconds in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he annoyed Hitler by winning four gold medals. Athletes were still digging their starting holes with small shovels.
In 1948, technology had progressed, and Omega used the cellular photoelectric eye for the first time (at the Winter Games in St. Moritz). At the London Games, they used the photofinish camera, with recording speeds that could be adjusted according to the sport. At last, machines took over from humans, and the 100 metre final required the use of the photofinish camera, with American Harrison Dillard a shade ahead of team-mate Barney Ewell at 10.3 seconds.
In 1952, Omega used the Racend Omega Timer, renamed the Photofinish. This mobile unit with a quartz chronograph recorded the starting pistol shot electronically, and the finish with a photocell. American Lindy Remigino won the 100 metres at 10.79 seconds, the first time that hundredths of a second were recorded. Just behind were Herb McKenley (Jamaica) at 10.80 seconds, McDonald Bailey (10.83 seconds) and Dean Smith (USA, 10.84). Without the new technology, the result would have been a tie between them all!
Human-eye decisions still remained in swimming, in which automatic touch pads, invented by Omega, were introduced in time for the 1968 Olympics. At these Games, times were recorded to the nearest thousandth of a second, and times could be superimposed onto the broadcast TV screen. This meant that times were available to the viewing public in real-time. In 1972, the 400-metre medley was won by Gunnnar Larsson (Sweden) at 4:31.981, two-thousandths of a second ahead of Tim McKee (USA). But after this controversial decision, rules were changed, so that times would be measured in hundredths of a second. As a result, in 1984, a gold medal was shared for the first time in Olympic swimming history: Americans Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Nogshead stopped the clock at 55.92 seconds for the 100-metre freestyle.
Technology continued to progress, and in the 1992 Winter Games, the Omega Scan-O-Vision system recorded times seamlessly blended with continuous pictures. By 1996, timekeeping had become a trilogy: timing, data handling, and distribution of the results. Even more data was recorded: GPS technology introduced by Swatch was used for sailing regattas, and in sprint events, reaction time, acceleration and running speed were recorded. The 100-metre champion Donovan Bailey (Canada) was found to be last out of the blocks, but with the greatest acceleration, and the highest speed. He won at the world record time of 9.84 seconds.
At the 2012 Olympics, Omega will be present with over 450 professional time-keepers and data handlers, and about 400 tonnes of equipment, including 180 kilometres of cable and optic fibre. Timing has reached an accuracy of one millionth of a second with the Quantum Timer. The starting pistol is now a high-tech device that does three things at once: plays a sound, emits a flash of light, and sends a pulse to the timing equipment. It offers another advantage with respect to the traditional pistol: no problems at airport security!
In the photos below, the Omega Seamaster Aquaterra, in the special Omega London Olympic Games edition:
Below, the Omega Seamaster 1948, in the special Omega London Olympic Games edition: