How Omega Times Stars Like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt

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Michael Phelps

"We’re not allowed to make mistakes," says Omega Timing CEO Alan Zobrist.

Why can a sprinter win by 1/10,000th of a second while a swimmer can win by 1/1,000th of a second? Why does swimming produce ties? And whatever happened to the powder pistols that used to kick things off on the running track?

Alain Zobrist, the CEO of Omega Timing, answers 10 burning questions about how the Swiss watch company, which has been timing the Olympics since 1932 (when it did so with just 30 stopwatches), makes sure that the results aren’t in question in the high-profile, split-second running and swimming competitions.

"We’re not allowed to make mistakes," says Zobrist. "It’s massive. It’s like providing services to 28 world championships at the same time in two weeks. So we need to be extremely precise. Our role makes us more of a partner of the athletes than a traditional sponsor."


Why did Omega stop using real pistols to start the races in track & field?

Two reasons. First, it became increasingly difficult to get the pistols — even though they used powder, not bullets — through customs around the world. Second, the pistols would give some athletes an unfair advantage. "With the old powder guns, the athletes who would be closer to the gun would hear the sound earlier than the ones further away," says Zobrist.

What is used now instead?

In 2010, Omega introduced a futuristic-looking electronic start gun to the Olympics. It does three things at once when activated. The device starts the clock running. It also emits a flash of light that lets spectators know the race has started. And most importantly, sending an electronic signal is much faster than the speed of sound. When the new start gun is pressed, a sound is transmitted to loudspeakers behind the starting blocks, ensuring that each athlete hears the start gun at the same time. "That’s the technical advantage of these electronic starting guns," says Zobrist.

How is a false start determined?

"The new thing about the starting blocks here in Rio is that for the very first time, we’ve got the new false start detection system," says Zobrist. These new blocks are designed with pressure sensors that measure, at a rate of 4,000 times per second, the pressure of the athletes’ bodies on the blocks. This can detect both types of false starts: when athletes move their bodies while in the starting blocks and when they react prior to 100 milliseconds after the gun shot. "Thanks to this technology we can produce a force curve that is handed out to the judges," says Zobrist.

Is it true that Omega does two different measurements of the finish of a track race?

Yes. Omega has photocells that are set up on small columns on each side of the track that send light beams across the finish line. Previously there were just two photocells, one on each column; for this Olympics, there are now four altogether, forming a curtain of light beams that can better detect athletes passing the finish line at different levels (such as in hurdles or in the case of runner Shaunae Miller’s controversial dive to win the women’s 400-meter final.) "When the light beams are broken, it stops the running time on TV and in the stadium. But it’s not the official time," says Zobrist.

Wait — so what measures the official time?

The official times are determined by Omega’s new Myria photofinish camera, which takes 10,000 pictures per second of the first five millimeters of the finish line. "The race is actually finished on the beginning of the finish line, not in the middle and not at the end," says Zobrist, who notes as well that Omega even measures wind on the track, which can affect whether a result counts as a record.

What’s that loud bell sound that the runners hear right before their last lap?

It’s an actual bell, the only non-electronic instrument used on the course. Called the last lap bell and also used in cycling events, it is hand-made in bronze, the way bells have been made for centuries.


How is it that there are ties in swimming, as when Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh all tied in the 100m butterfly in Rio? It’s hard to believe this can really happen when there are cameras that can measure results down to 1/10,000th of a second.

In swimming, times are measured only to 1/100th of a second, meaning ties do happen. "We’ve got the technology to measure to 1/10,000th of a second," says Zobrist. “But we calibrate swimming according to the rules of FINA, swimming’s international governing body.”

Why doesn’t FINA want to measure times more precisely and thus break ties?

It has to do with small variations that can occur in the construction of the pool itself. Because it’s nearly impossible to build a perfect rectangle, FINA allows for differences of up to 3 centimeters in the length of lanes. Measuring to anything more precise than 1/100th of a second would be unfair to swimmers who may be in an ever-so-slightly longer lane.

How do the touch pads work in swimming?

"The unique thing about swimming is that it’s the only sport where the athletes stop the time themselves," says Zobrist. "They’ve got to push between one and a half and two and a half kilos of force to stop their time. It’s like a light push. This amount of pressure is needed in order to avoid any waves produced by the athlete to inadvertently stop the time."

Is there a back-up plan for the swimming results if, say, the touch pads don’t work?

Cameras are used as a back-up. "Back-up systems are everywhere at the Olympics," says Zobrist. In swimming, cameras take 100 pictures per second of the finish area in the different lanes. "In the case of close finishes, we can frame by frame check what point in time the athletes hit the wall," says Zobrist. In 2008, officials double-checked the results in the 100M butterfly after the touch sensors showed that Phelps had won, beating the second-place finisher, Serbia’s Milorad Cavic. The race was so close that the Serbia team protested. Officials then checked the camera images and concluded that Phelps had in fact won.

Photos courtesy of Omega