Back in 1932, Omega sent one watchmaker to the Los Angeles Olympics with 30 stopwatches to time the various events. For the Rio Olympics in July and August of this year, Omega will send 480 timing and scoring professionals (assisted by more than 850 trained volunteers) and the company will ship over 450 tons of equipment. Imagine, timing and scoring and handling the results from all the different events in all the Olympic sports, many of them happening at the same time in various locations across Brazil.

It is an important and highly complicated job. And it’s one that Alain Zobrist, the CEO of Swiss Timing, wouldn’t trade for any other.

Reason for being

Swiss Timing, as a company, was founded in 1972, combining Omega Timing and Longines Timing, and the company does the timing across all Swatch Group brands. Omega has the Olympics, while other brands specialise in various other sports (for example Tissot and MotoGP and the NBA, Longines and show jumping, Swatch and volleyball and more).

For timekeeping, it is important that every sport is approached equally. Though TV networks might promote particular events and spectators might prioritise certain events, “every sport is equally important,” says Zobrist. “If you think about the athletes, they are all training their entire lives to go to the Olympics, for that particular moment, and they deserve to get the best services to provide them with accurate results. It’s a lot of responsibility for Omega as well. We are not just a sponsor, we are a partner, which serves the athletes. You can’t have the Olympics without timekeeping and scorekeeping. Omega’s role is very important.

Swiss Timing takes its cues from the federations of the different sports and their rules and regulations. For example, the false start detection equipment for track events is completely different from those in swimming, because the federations have different rules.

“Omega tailor-makes its technology for the rules of every federation,” details Zobrist. “The sport that is the most complex, which has nothing to do with difficulty, is athletics because a lot of things happen at the same time in the stadium. You’ve got a race around the track while high jump, long jump, hammer throw and more are all going on. We have about 40 timekeepers on site during these events.”

Anatomy of an event: the 100m dash

The 100m has seen tremendous innovation in its timing and scoring systems. The start has been evaluated to make sure it is fair to every runner.

With time, Swiss Timing have developed a new system for the start that uses an electronic starter pistol that flashes a light and the sound of the shot is played through speakers behind the starting blocks of every lane, so every runner hears the starting sound at exactly the same time.

False starts were also examined, Swiss Timing developed an electronic starting block with sensors that can evaluate exactly when a runner pushes off. The governing body of track and field has determined that 0.100 of a second is the threshold for a false start – an athlete who responds to the gun in less than that has committed a false start, and is therefore disqualified.

The finish line is, of course, an area of concern, as winners, medalists and losers can be so tightly packed together that it is impossible to determine positions electronically. So, Swiss Timing developed a sophisticated system that combines photo cells (this year there are four photo cells on each side of the finish line, up from two in London) with the new Myria photo finish camera, which takes 10,000 digital images a second to make an accurate determination possible. The camera also has improved light sensitivity, so the quality of images is about four times better than previous versions.

During the race, wind is also recorded as a world record can only be officially registered if the wind is blowing at less than 2m per second.

Technological developments for Rio

This year, Omega introduces a new electronic scoring system for archery.  When the arrow hits the target, two scanners run lengthways and widthways to calculate the arrow’s distance from the centre point. The system has 0.2mm accuracy, which is impossible for the human eye to detect. It is also fast, delivering results within one second from the moment the target is hit.

“Innovation can be driven by the sports and the athletes, who have their needs; it can be driven by our timekeepers, who see a need and a way to solve that need; it can also be driven by our engineers who see a new technology and see how it can be applied,” says Zobrist. “In the systems we develop, the priority is to use the most accurate and reliable technology. We also provide technologies that enhance the spectator experience and the TV experience, and this can also help the sport to grow. The system in archery allows us to accurately display at exactly what point the arrow lands. The new system is fully electronic, it detects where the arrows hit, so it is more precise and faster when detecting and providing the result.”

What sports get new systems depends entirely on the developing technology, the needs of the sports, the governing bodies and the athletes.“There is no doubt that with technology developing so fast, new systems will be applied to sports whenever possible” says Zobrist.

In the past, many of the lessons learned during timekeeping made it directly into the watches – for example the need to time to 1/100th of a second – but that happens less today as the timing and scoring equipment gets more sophisticated, electronic and computerised. “The reason the IOC chose Omega way back in 1932 was because they needed to have one company providing one accurate product for all of their events,” Zobrist explains.

In the swimming events at Rio, there are new starting blocks being introduced to measure false starts, as well as new sensitive touch pads combined with photo finish cameras in the pool in case the final touch is too light to trigger the touch pad. New scoreboards are being used, and digital lane counters imbedded in the bottom of the pool remind the swimmers how many lengths remain in any given race.

Golf, which returns to the Olympics this year, gets a new scoreboard that along with the player’s name and current score will show live output of the stroke speed, estimated distance and height of the stroke

The pressure mounts

Rio will be a Games of numbers: 335 sport specific scoreboards, 850 trained volunteers, 79 public scoreboards, 450 tons of equipment, 480 on-site professionals and over 124 miles of cables and optical fibre. There is a lot of pressure to get everything right. Omega’s brand image depends on flawless timing, scoring and reporting, and Swiss Timing takes this incredibly seriously. Swiss Timing will continue to do its job, refining and bettering equipment and systems. As new systems develop, Swiss Timing will incorporate these into the events with which they are involved. For example, Swiss Timing is working on a completely new scorekeeping system for Tissot for use in the NBA, and this will probably be integrated into worldwide basketball, including the Olympics, at some point.

It certainly helps to be a sports fan. “The entire team, from the developers to the timekeepers, all of us at Omega timekeeping, are passionate about sports,” confirms Zobrist. “It’s a great value for us as well. We can all be part of the greatest sporting events in the world – personally, I will be in Rio for about a month, but we will have people there for more than three years, preparing.

“I don’t have a particular favourite event – what fascinates me most are the emotions of athletes,” he adds. “When you can see the joy when they win, the sadness when they lose, these emotions are actually very close to each other. We are very lucky. With us providing technologies that help them to perform at their best, and then to see these emotions, makes it very special.”

There’s no doubt that timing and scoring all the events at the Olympics is stressful, complicated, and a huge job. But it’s one that Zobrist loves. “It’s great to work with athletes and the sports,” he says. “We innovate and evolve with our technologies to make sure the athletes can perform their best. This is very exciting and rewarding for the entire timekeeping crew.”

So, there is no doubt that the Olympics are about high technology and state of the art equipment, but there is still one vestige of tradition left: the last lap bells, which are forged, almost entirely by hand, at the Blondeau foundry near the town centre of La Chaux-de-Fonds in the heart of Swiss watchmaking. Last lap bells like these have been part of the Olympics since the games in Ancient Greece and this year they will sound the final lap for athletics, track and road cycling and the mountain bike events.