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  • Alvin Chong

Olympic Timekeeping: A Historical Overview


Where every second matters

 

An Ancient Tradition

The Olympic Games is the juggernaut of sporting events. It is the time when athletes seek to solidify themselves as legends, and set new records that the next generation aims to conquer. It is rather impressive that a huge international spotlight is cast upon each of the Olympics when you consider that the Olympics have been around for thousands of years; few modern sporting events can claim to hold such an accolade.

Based on written records, the origins of the Olympics can be traced to 776 B.C. in Ancient Greece, though historians largely believe that they stretched further back in time. Named after the place they were held at (Olympia), the ancient Olympics primarily functioned as a religious festival to honour Zeus, the Sky and Thunder God who rules Mount Olympus as the King of Gods. It was also tradition for the games to take place once every four years between August and September. The prominence and the influence of the Olympics were so immense that all wars ceased during the Olympics owing to a pan-Hellenic Olympic truce. Ancient historians also measured time based on the four-year interval between each Olympic Games. This time standard is known as the Olympiad.

Ancient Olympia. Image: Pierers Universal-Lexikon.
Ancient Olympic Games. Image: IOC.

Ancient Olympic Timekeeping

Modern technology has progressed to the point where time can be measured down to one millionth of a second. This has facilitated the setting of many time-based records in contemporary Olympic sports such as swimming, athletics and more. To most, these records may just appear to be randomly construed numbers. But for athletes, these numbers could very well be what they dedicate their lives towards. Their mad dashes and sprints would mean nothing if they are not quantitatively captured.

In Ancient Greece, timekeeping was measured with antiquated systems such as sundials, celestial bodies and clepsydras (water clocks). These mechanisms were hardly accurate enough when it came to establishing time-based records as they could not measure close to a second, much less a millisecond.

Sundial from Athens. Image: World History Encyclopaedia.

As such, victors of events such as the apene (racing with chariots) and the kalpe (trotting horse race with mares) were simply declared as whoever finished first and were thus crowned by the gods. These victors would return home as heroes, having brought prestige to their hometowns. Perhaps the most valued accomplishment that they won would be personal glory; most of them would be immortalised and deified in statues and with victory odes penned in their honour.

Discobolus of Myron. Image: The British Museum.

While time-based records were not very prevalent in the Ancient Olympics, timekeeping could have played a greater role in determining the dates of each of the games. Scientists have unearthed an Antikythera mechanism that points towards evidence that the Ancient Greeks kept track of the interval between each Olympic Games by monitoring the planetary motion and the phases of the sun and moon. This was based on the discovery of a “NEMEA” inscription near a small subsidiary dial of the mechanism. Nemea was the site of the Nemean Games, one part of the Olympiad cycle. According to research scientist, Dr Tony Freeth, “Other names followed, ‘ISTHMIA’ for the games at Corinth, ‘PYTHIA’ for the games at Delphi and finally the hard-to-read ‘OLYMPIA’ for the Olympic Games.”


The boisterous tradition of the Ancient Olympic games would persist until 393 A.D., when Christian Emperor Theodosius I declared a ban on all pagan events, including the Ancient Olympics.

Part of the Antikythera Mechanism. Image: Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press.

Birth of the Modern Olympic Games

The spirit of the Olympics laid dormant until 1500 years later, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France proposed the idea of reviving this ancient tradition during a meeting of the Union des Sports Athlétiques in Paris. Coubertin was inspired after visiting the Ancient Olympic site. Two years after the meeting, Coubertin received the go-ahead to develop the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and thus, the Olympic tradition was revived.


The first of the modern Olympic Games was appropriately hosted in Athens, Greece, its country of origin, in 1896. It welcomed participants from 12 nations and featured 43 events, many of which we are familiar with such as swimming, gymnastics and wrestling. As per the ancient tradition, the next Olympic Game would take place four years later in Paris.

1896 Athens Olympics. Image: Henry Guttman Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Development of Olympic Timekeeping

Watching the past few Olympics and we’ll see records and timings splattered all across our television screens. The democratisation of these numbers has made us take timekeeping at the Olympics for granted.

Compared to today’s seamless integration of timekeeping, timekeeping at the first few Olympic Games was quite a dire affair. It was relegated mostly to one timekeeping instrument - the stopwatch. This created many issues of consistency such as human errors (for example, starting the stopwatch slightly later or earlier than the others) and accuracy issues owing to the various brands and types of stopwatches used by the many different judges. Timing the 1896 marathon was a sporting event in of itself; the same stopwatch that started the time at the starting line had to be brought to the finishing line by bicycle ahead of all the competitors.

Facing rising accusations of unfairness and a lack of uniformity, the IOC decided to work towards the standardisation of timekeeping. Heuer was hence tasked with the heavy responsibility of developing a stopwatch that would be used in all of the events and by all of the judges. In 1916, Heuer finally patented the Mikrograph. It was revolutionary for its time as it was the first mechanical stopwatch in the world that could be accurate to a thousandth of a second; others before it were only accurate to around a fifth of a second. So significant was the Mikrograph that TAG Heuer created an anniversary edition in 2016 to celebrate its centenary.

1916 Heuer Mikrograph. Image: TAG Heuer.
Heuer Mikrograph Advert (1922). Image: TAG Heuer.

Omega and the Olympics: Notable developments

1932

In 1932, the IOC trusted the timekeeping reins to Swiss watchmaking giant, Omega. This is an accolade that Omega continues to hold today. Within a span of almost 90 years, Omega has unwaveringly innovated and evolved the way the Olympics are timed. Precision and innovation are principles that are highly regarded by Omega. There is no better way to showcase their technical prowess than on a grand stage like the Olympics.


For the Olympics held at Los Angeles that year, Omega dispatched a single watchmaker armed with 30 rattrapante chronographs to

time all the events. These chronographs were accurate to the nearest tenth of a second and had a split-seconds complication to better facilitate the timing of laps. However, although they were ahead of their time, they still do not come close to today’s technologies as the timings have to be averaged out from six of the chronographs used by six different judges to mitigate human error.

1932 Omega Rattrapante Chronograph. Image: Omega.
Omega Olympics Advert (1932). Image: Omega.

The 1932 Olympics also saw the debut of another technology - the Chronocinema. It is basically a camera that is capable of recording times accurate to a hundredth of a second, which is way more than the Omega chronographs. The catch is that developing the film takes hours before a verdict can be decided should there be a need to. Nevertheless, the Chronocinema proved useful in 1936 in settling the controversial finish to the 100 metres final. In it, Ralph Metcalfe and Thomas Tolan clocked 10.3s according to the Omega chronographs. As discerned by the human eye, Metcalfe appeared to have edged across the finish line first. Unfortunately for him, the Chronocinema exposed the frailties of the human eye and revealed that it was Tolan who won as his torso first crossed the finish line.

Ralph Metcalfe (left) and Eddie Tolan (right). Image: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries.
Timekeeping at the 1932 Olympics. Image: Omega.

1948

1948 witnessed the birth of electronic timekeeping, no doubt facilitated by the technological developments of the World Wars that preceded it. It was then that machines gradually started to displace the role of human operators who, as we have seen, are very prone to errors.

The two standout technologies developed for the 1948 Olympic Games were the “Magic Eye” photoelectric cells by Omega and the slit photofinish camera by the British Race Finish Recording Company. The former was able to record the time to the nearest hundredth of a second when the finish line was crossed thanks to a thin light beam, while the latter allowed the judges to unquestionably see the exact order in which the athletes finished.

Omega “Magic Eye”. Image: Omega.

1956

This year saw the development of Omega’s Swim-O-Matic. It is an automatic timing system that measured the time when it detects that a swimmer has touched the ends of a swimming pool. In many ways, this was the predecessor of the touchpads that are still used in swimming pools today.

However, the Swim-O-Matic was not very practical as it was burdened by its hefty weight of 150kg. Thankfully, the wonders of technology were able to considerably lighten it to a mere 1.2kg by the 1980 Olympics.

Omega Swim-O-Matic. Image: Blackbird Automotive.

1964

The viewing experience of the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Olympics at home started to take on some semblance of a modern-day home viewing experience. Thanks to the Omegascope technology, the live times of athletes such as their running times were superimposed on the bottom of the television screens. This delivered an unprecedented viewing experience of sports, enabling the viewers to get more involved.

1964 was also a momentous period as Japanese giant, Seiko, started to join the Olympic fray as the official timekeeper for the year. This was very apt as the 1964 Summer Olympics was hosted in Tokyo.

As soon as the IOC announced Seiko to be the host of the 1964 games, the pressure was on Seiko as the company was not too adept at sports timekeeping then. In 1961, the three Seiko companies (Seikosha Clock Factory, Suwa Seikosha and Daini Seikosha) started to develop sports timekeeping instruments with each focusing on different responsibilities. For example, Daini Seikosha was focused on stopwatches while Suwa Seikosha was focused on crystal chronometers.

Seiko Electric Scoreboard. Image: Seiko.
Seiko Digital Stop Clock. Image: Seiko.
Seiko Wrestling Clock. Image: Seiko.
Seiko Basketball Clock. Image: Seiko.

Through sheer perseverance, Seiko was ultimately able to deploy 36 models and 1278 timing instruments for the event. Being tasked with the heavy responsibility of official timekeepers also proved to be a blessing and a boon to Seiko, as their technological developments and innovations in that period led to the development of the first Quartz watch - the Astron - in 1969.

1969 Seiko Astron. Image: Seiko.

1984

While it has been established that timings are very important in sports, perhaps it has the greatest significance in a running event. In order to capture false starts, Omega came up with false start detection devices. These devices took on the form of starting blocks. They are made to be highly sensitive and can capture even the slightest bit of pressure exerted on them. As soon as an athlete‘s feet left the blocks, they will start the timing and thereby allowing for the detection of false starts.

Omega Starting Blocks. Image: Omega.

2006

Technology has been made to be exponentially portable since the dawn of the 21st Century. Speed skaters in the 2006 Olympic Games were able to experience wearable timekeeping technologies courtesy of Omega. These athletes wore transponders that were specially designed for their ankles. These transponders were able to send and receive radio signals, hence allowing for the capturing of specific time measurements for each race.

Speed Skating Ankle Transponders (2006 Turin Olympics).

2012

This year saw another groundbreaking invention that Omega introduced to the world - the Quantum Timer. This instrument is able to capture a staggering one millionth of a second, making it five times more accurate than its predecessors and hence marked a new generation of sports timekeeping.

Modern-day Omega Quantum Timer. Image: Omega.

The Future and Beyond

As these notable developments have shown, the history of timekeeping is very much intertwined with the history of the Olympics; knowledge of one will inform you of the other.

As athletes strive to outdo one another with insane new records and timings, so too does technology continues to innovate and evolve. After all, timing is an indispensable and invaluable component of sports. So goes the saying, “To realise the value of one millisecond, ask the person who won a silver medal in the Olympics.”

 






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