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OMEGA timing tech scores big at Olympics

OMEGA has unparalleled experience in sports timekeeping. Most famously, the brand has been the Official Timekeeper of the Olympic Games since 1932 and Paralympic Games since 1992. A look at the state-of-the-art sports timing and measurement technology used at the events.

There’s no question that timekeeping is one of the key components contributing to the excitement of athletics competition. Without the ability to measure times and distances that separate the winner from the runners-up, competition as we know it would be impossible. Without timing there would be no World or Olympic and Paralympic Games records.

OMEGA has unparalleled experience in sports timekeeping. In 1932, OMEGA pocket watch chronographs were already considered the most reliable instruments available for measuring world-class performance at sporting events. The brand’s reputation was such that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) asked it to supply all sports timing devices for use at the Olympic Games to be held that year in Los Angeles.

Since then, OMEGA has continued to develop and deliver state-of-the-art sports timing and measurement technology used not only at the Olympic and Paralympic Games but at other leading athletic events as well.

History of OMEGA and Athletics Timekeeping

1932 was a defining year in the history of sports measurement. For the very first time, a single private company was entrusted with keeping time across all events at the Olympic Games. That honour went to OMEGA, who supplied one timekeeper and 30 high precision chronographs which had all been certified as chronometers by the Observatory at Neuchâtel.

In this first occasion as Official Timekeeper of the Olympic Games, OMEGA was able to capture results to the nearest 10th of a second. The brand’s expertise was highly appreciated by the officials in Los Angeles and was also invaluable when it came to confirming 17 new World Records.

Within two decades, machines began to out-perform humans for timekeeping precision.  It was at the Olympic Winter Games St. Moritz 1948 that OMEGA first used the cellular photoelectric “eye”, which was able to automatically stop the clock on the finish line of races. At London 1948 that same year, the British Race Finish Recording Co Ltd developed the first slit photofinish camera, ideal for close-fought races such as sprints, rowing and cycling. The camera worked in tandem with OMEGA’s advanced timing equipment.

Official times recorded to the nearest hundredth of a second

At subsequent Olympic Games and other  leading sporting events, OMEGA and Race Finish Recording worked together with a revised version of the photofinish camera, the Racend Omega Timer. It could, for the first time, show fractions of a second below the images of athletes crossing the finish line. This marked the beginning of the era of quartz and electronics. The Omega Timer, mobile and independent of the electrical network, allowed the results to be printed out on a roll of paper, winning OMEGA the prestigious ‘Croix du Mérite Olympique’ in 1952. Official times were now recorded to the nearest hundredth of a second.

As television was refined and a worldwide audience started to enjoy athletics competitions from the comfort of their own homes, OMEGA introduced the Omegascope in 1961. It allowed the introduction of real time sports reporting on TV by superimposing live times on the bottom of the screen; it revolutionised timekeeping and left no margin for error because it was openly on display for millions of TV viewers.

Integrated timing

In 1968, “integrated timing“, which provided statistical analysis with results being fed to judges, coaches and the media, was introduced.

Significantly, it was also the first year that the electronic times were accepted as official. This was motivated in part by the fact that the television broadcasters wanted the images on the screen to be of athletes and not of judges. Modern sports timekeeping had come of age.

At the same time, loudspeakers were being introduced behind each lane in track events so that the athletes would hear the start signal at the same second. In a 100-metre sprint, where a hundredth of a second can mean the difference between gold- and silver-medal performances, every effort was made to make sure that nothing would give one runner an unfair advantage over the others.

At the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, OMEGA introduced colour photofinish images whose paper prints signed by the athletes became instant collectors’ items. False start detectors were also introduced in the same year.

Along with timekeeping and the distribution of results, data-handling became another important part of OMEGA’s contribution at athletics events in the mid-1990’s. Acceleration and running speed were measured which gave further in-depth information during events.

In 2000, OMEGA’s on-screen graphics made it possible in some sports for TV viewers at home to see a “virtual record line” that indicated how close the competitors were to world records.

OMEGA’s Timekeeping Equipment

The equipment used for world-class timekeeping requires cautious and precise installation, particularly at the start of a competition and at the finish line.

The Electronic Starting Pistol: An equal start is vital in sports. But the problem with traditional pistols is that athletes in the furthest lanes hear the shot a fraction later than the closest lanes. Today, OMEGA’s electronic pistol is connected to speakers positioned behind each racer. When the trigger is pressed, a light flash is emitted, a start pulse is given to the timing device - and most importantly – a sound is played behind each athlete, giving them all an equal start.

Athletics Starting Blocks: As well as having integrated speakers, the starting blocks in athletics also feature built-in sensors that measure an athlete’s force against the footrest 4,000 times per second. The detection system instantly sends the force measurements to an on-site computer so that the starter can visually see any false start. The rules of World Athletics fix the minimum reaction time at 100 milli-seconds (a tenth of a second). Any reaction which takes place below this limit is considered a false start.

Photoelectric Cell Technology: Instead of the traditional ribbon on the finish lines of races, photocell technology emits beams of light. As soon as the winning athlete crosses those beams, their winning time is instantly recorded. OMEGA now uses four photocells on the finish line, all integrated into one unit, allowing more body patterns to be detected. While this gives OMEGA an immediate finishing time, the official time is always taken from the photofinish camera.

The photoelectric cells determine precisely when some part of an athlete’s body crosses the line but the photofinish image will be the conclusive proof of the result.

OMEGA Scan’O’Vision Myria

Perhaps the most widely known sports timekeeping device used in athletics is the photofinish camera, the equipment set up at the finish line of sprints, hurdles and other races. The OMEGA Scan’O’Vision Myria is a combination of a time detector and a chronograph. Photofinish images are produced using a high-tech image-capture device that records up to 10,000 high-quality digital images per second. It is this photograph that the judges will use to determine the champion of each race.

The Finish Line Elements

1. The visual field of the photofinish camera: The best contrast is obtained with a white background. As the camera only perceives the finish line as a vertical line, a non-reflective white strip is applied along the finish line and further to fully cover the visual field of the camera. It is completed by a 50 mm wide white post placed behind the photocells.

2. The finish line: It is 50 mm wide as per World Athletics specifications. The OMEGA Scan’O’Vision Myria lines up on the first 8 mm. The lane’s positions are easily identified on the photofinish picture thanks to the black tape markers set between each lane division. Lanes 4 & 5 are specially identified with two black tape markers indicating the centre of the picture.

3. The “infield” OMEGA Scan’O’Vision Myria: It is installed on the track, on a post raised between 2 and 4 metres away from the track side with an ideal angle of 20° (+0° -5°). The photofinish picture from this camera is used to judge the competitors who might be hidden in the picture from the main camera. The zones are restricted areas, access is not permitted to anyone including photographers and judges to prevent disturbance of the timing equipment.

4. The photoelectric cells: Nowadays, OMEGA uses the latest generation of this vital equipment. Instead of two photocells, there are now four, all integrated into one unit, and positioned on the finish line of the Athletics events. With four photocells in operation, more body patterns are able to be detected as they cross the line. This means even more accuracy at the moment that matters.

Measuring The Wind: According to the World Athletics Competition Rules, sprint and jump performances for which the measured wind-speed exceeds +2.0 m/s are deemed illegal and cannot be ratified for record purposes. For this purpose, OMEGA provides a three-sided concentration clock which, when it is hooked up to a wind gauge, displays the wind speed. It can be connected to a photofinish camera and the wind speed can be automatically measured and displayed, without the assistance of a field operator.

Measuring Height and Distance: In-field events where distance travelled must be measured as precisely as possible, OMEGA uses video or laser technology. Video Distance Measurement (VDM) has been successfully integrated for many years in long and triple jump events. Another event to be covered by this video technology is the Shot Put. All other events, such as discus, hammer throw and javelin-throwing competitions all rely on OMEGA’s laser technology to measure their performances with superb precision and reliability. For the athletes, precise timing and measurement provides the basis for the decisions that divide gold, silver and bronze.

Height above the bar (Pole Vault): From the start of the Diamond League season 2023, OMEGA has provided an additional feature for the pole vault discipline. A 2D camera is set up on the top of the pole vault structure in order to capture the moment when the athlete is at his highest point above the bar. A TV graphics with content and colour shows the real height realised.

OMEGA’s real-time tracking system

In recent years, OMEGA has welcomed a new era of sports timekeeping. Bringing more transparency to the field, the world’s best sprinters, hurdlers, middle-distance runners and long-distance runners now have their speed and split times measured in real time during competitions, made possible by a chip in the start number worn on their chest.

The high-tech chip, which weighs only 16 grams and is the size of a credit card, is fixed to the inside of the start numbers worn by athletes on their chests. This sends the athletes’ split times and current speed to the systems used by the big stadium screens and TV commentators in real time – while the race is still going on – via receivers installed in the stadium.

This means, for example, that you will be able to see exactly how the champion of a race achieved their result. Statistics such as 10m split times for sprinters and lap times for every longer-distance competitor are nothing new, but experts had to wait a long time after the race had finished for timekeeping specialists to analyse the videos and provide an exact breakdown of this data. When Usain Bolt made his outstanding new world records of 9.58 seconds in the 100m and 19.19 seconds in the 200m at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009, the only times that were available in real time were his reaction times at the start and end of the race.

With this new system, spectators can see all of the important metrics either during or immediately after the race, and not only for the winner. In fact, all of the athletes have a chip in their start numbers, so you can see performance data for every runner.

Based on current RTTS technology, a new detailed print-out called the “Race Analysis Graphical” will be generated and uploaded to after each race at the Diamond League. The 3-page document will reveal detailed information, including the curves related to each athlete’s speed (km/h), their distance from the leader, the split times depending on the race length (at 10, 20 or 50m), and the section-by-section time. This data analysis will help athletes and coaches to better understand and improve their performances. In addition, it is shared in real-time with journalists to complete their reviews with additional key information.

OMEGA has called the new system the RTTS (Real-Time Tracking System), which makes every runner’s performance transparent. Using the system’s data, you could rank the times of eight 100m finalists at 20m, 50m, 70m or 90m as well as at the finish line. Those who are interested can then find out instantly who performed best at the start of the race, who accelerated most quickly, who reached their highest speed earliest and who was able to hold their top speed for the longest amount of time.

Since 2023, RTTS has also been used for Middle- and Long-distance events, providing a deeper analysis of athlete tactics during a race.  The “real distance covered” measurement, shows us how and where each runner is positioned throughout their time on the track, and what this meant to their overall result. Spectators and commentators are not the only ones interested in this data.

Trainers, coaches and the athletes themselves can use it to further develop the athlete’s capability.

How does it work?

The chip in the start number worn by athletes on their chests weighs 16 grams and is 66 mm long, 48 mm wide and 5 mm thick. The chips are rechargeable.

In the stadium, there are 16 receivers with external antennas on the outside of the track and 4 on the inside that receive and transmit the chips’ data. The data from each athlete’s chip is then recorded throughout the entire race. Up to 40 chips can be used at the same time in a race.

Communicating the results

OMEGA’s timekeeping professionals do more than measure the performances of the athletes. Their services also include the display of results to competitors and the public at the venues, data handling and the provision of On Venue Results (OVR), and the delivery of official results for distribution by the print, broadcast and network media to audiences around the world.

Informing the World

Athletes, their support teams, competition officials, on-site spectators, journalists and remote audiences all consume information prepared and delivered by OMEGA. On-site displays for competitors and the public pro-vide real-time results, which are also delivered through a variety of channels to off-site audiences served by TV and radio broadcasters, internet and print media. Dedicated systems are used to feed information to the Commentator Information System used by broadcasters to source comment during competitions, in printed form to officials and over computer networks to the international sports federations, to print and electronic media journalists in broadcast centers, to the intranet and the internet.

Media Information System (MIS)

The Media Information System (MIS) is a database used by journalists and the media prior to, during and after competitions. The MIS contains the official results and information provided by OMEGA along with supplemental information from a variety of sources. Broadcast journalists use the MIS to interpret, enhance and/ or comment on a given competition during the event, in real time. Therefore, viewers who follow a competition on TV often have more information than people in attendance at the venue. Journalists also make use of the MIS to add intermediate times, athletes’ biographies and career performance records, competition start lists, results for qualifying heats and medal round competitions, individual and team rankings and medal counts.

"OMEGA has always been committed to athletics timing and continuously develops the technology it uses to deliver flawless results. OMEGA is responsible for timing some of the most important athletic competitions in the world including the Diamond League meetings and, of course, the Olympic and Paralympic Games," the company says.

"At these and other international athletics competitions, no one knows with certainty which nations’ athletes will be standing on the medal podiums but they can be sure of one thing: their championship, often record-breaking, results will have been timed and measured by OMEGA."

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