Timekeeping at the Olympic Games (3)
The London 1948 Olympic Games ushered in the era of modern sports timekeeping. A number of the ground-breaking innovations introduced at that edition of the Games are a part of our contemporary timekeeping efforts. Some are remarkably similar to their ancestors while others have changed conspicuously. In either case, the goal is the same: to deliver the best possible timekeeping service to the world’s finest athletes.
Highligts of timekeeping at the Olympic Games 1932–1976.
Highligts of timekeeping at the Olympic Games 1980–2012.
New Timekeeping Technologies at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
1948–2012: The Evolution of Timekeeping Equipment
In 1948, Omega’s photoelectric cells made their Olympic Games debut and while their appearance has changed over the years, the function and performance of the contemporary version are similar to that of those launched in 1948 (the speed of light has remained fairly consistent over the years). In 1948, there was a photoelectric cell with a combined sender and receiver on one side of the track and a reflective mirror on the other. When the light beam was broken between the cell and the mirror, the time was recorded. From the next edition of the Games, the sender and receiver were separated and placed on opposite sides of the track for more effective performance in the case of grouped finishes.
An enduring image from past sporting events is the starting pistol, reminiscent of the revolvers so popular in movies set in the Old West. At the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, this was replaced by a streamlined, futuristic device composed of a flash gun and a sound generation box.
With the new device, when the starter presses its trigger, three things happen simultaneously: a sound is «played», a light flash is emitted and a start pulse is given to the timing device. By pressing the trigger a second time within two seconds, the false start will be audibly signaled. The sounds can be changed and downloaded by computer.
As was the case with traditional powder pistols, the sound is reproduced by speakers near each competitor, guaranteeing that they hear the signal at the same time. At some venues, the audio signals are also put on the public address system.
The new electronic starter offers another practical advantage over the traditional starting pistol: it causes less consternation at airport security checkpoints.
Athletics starting block
The London 1948 Olympic Games, starting blocks were used for the first time in athletics. At the previous edition of the Games in 1936, sprinters like the legendary Jessie Owens dug their own starting holes! The starting blocks introduced in 1948 ensured that the conditions were identical for every competitor.
At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Omega is introducing an updated athletics starting block. The runners’ reaction times are measured entirely by the measurement of force against the back block and not by movement. The new blocks can detect the reaction times of every runner - from children through world-class sprinters - without changing any settings on the device.
Touch pads in swimming pools
Among the more conspicuous timekeeping innovations are the touch pads that are now such a familiar site at the end of each competitor’s lane in the swimming pool. The need for the kind of precision provided by the touch pads became especially clear at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games. In those days, three judges were assigned to watch each lane in the swimming events. That year, in the men’s 100-meter freestyle, the American Lance Larson and the Australian John Devitt finished at almost exactly the same time. The stopwatches held by the timekeepers watching Larson recorded 55,0, 55,1 and 55,1 seconds. Devitt’s times were all 55,2 seconds.
A clear result, right? Not exactly. There were also three first-place judges and three second-place judges. Two of the first-place judges thought Devitt had won and only one favoured Larson. However, two of the second-place judges thought that Devitt had been the runner-up and only one thought Larson was runner-up.
The judges were divided 3-3 and they asked for the advice of the chief judge. He decided in favour of Devitt and ruled that the times should be ignored. Larson’s time was rounded up to 55,2 seconds. Official protests were filed, but the ruling was upheld.
The strangest part: John Devitt remained the official Olympic champion but Lance Larson’s time of 55,1 seconds was declared the Olympic record. Therefore, the runner-up had swum faster than the champion.
It was clear that an automatic system was needed and Omega introduced the touch pads at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1967. Their Olympic debut was at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968 and they have been used at every Olympic Games since.
Back to the List