The Inside Story of How Olympic Timekeeping is So Amazingly Precise

By Sarah Zhang on at

Three one-thousands of a second is less than 1/10 of a blink, less than 1/100 of a heartbeat. But if you're a speed skater, 0.003 seconds can be the difference between gold and silver. So how are Olympics timekeepers able to get such ridiculous precision and accuracy? For insight, we talked to Omega's Peter Hürzeler, head of Olympic timekeeping.

You can probably guess that modern timekeeping is a far cry from jacketed men with stopwatches, but the gigantic athletic information service that Omega has become is still mind-blogging. In fact, it doesn't limit itself to just split-seconds; it maintains a database every single athlete, their names, nationalities, and rankings for even for non-timed sports like figure skating and curling.

In between Olympics, Omega isn't sitting idle, either. They're responsible for the record-keeping of pretty much every major international sports competition, from swimming to cycling to the biathlon. "To only do Olympic games, it is not possible," Hürzeler told me. "You have to practise during all the years." So how do they do it?

The Inside Story of How Olympic Timekeeping Is So Amazingly Precise

Two years before the opening ceremony, Omega begins supervising the installation of timekeeping equipment. (There's already a two-person team for Rio.) The equipment, including scoreboards, photofinish cameras, and photocells, are sold to the construction contractors, as they'll still be used at the stadiums after the games. Sochi alone is hosting 230 tonnes of timekeeping equipment, and nearly 50 miles of optical fibre.

Equipment checks begin as early as a year prior to the opening ceremonies. Two weeks before the Olympics start, a staff of 260 timekeeping professionals descend to prepare for the games.

There are inevitably delays in the construction, says Hürzeler. But the race sites at Sochi, at least, have all been fine. Of the 17 Olympics he's worked at, he cites Athens as the most egregious offender. "They finished the swimming pool during the first event. Put the paint on the walls," he recalls.

RIP starting pistol; hello "electronic start system." Since the Vancouver games four years ago, the traditional powder pistol has been replaced with markedly less badass flash pistol. But it's also a lot more technologically sophisticated. The electronic start system simultaneously does three things: creates a flash, sets off a bang, and starts the clock. Loudspeakers transmit the sound to all of the athletes simultaneously.

The Inside Story of How Olympic Timekeeping Is So Amazingly Precise

Depending on the sport, racetracks are also installed with laser photocells—essentially tripwires made of light—and/or athletes are fitted with small transponders that report on false starts, lap times, and finish times.

All this data from the race in progress is monitored by a few staff in a timing control booth. The timekeepers have their eyes glued to the screen to make sure all equipment is all working and every athlete timed. But all they see are numbers, no names, to help prevent any impartiality.

The Inside Story of How Olympic Timekeeping Is So Amazingly Precise

The Inside Story of How Olympic Timekeeping Is So Amazingly Precise

If you really think about it, there's no much thing as a tie. There is always an infinitesimally small difference between any two finishers, as long as you have instruments powerful enough to discern it. But while Omega has had the technology to measure down to a thousandths of a second since the 1948 London games, you only ever see times displayed to the hundredths. Why?

The Inside Story of How Olympic Timekeeping Is So Amazingly Precise

The rules for ranking athletes are made by the federations of individual sports. In alpine skiing, which had the first tie for Olympic gold ever at Sochi, times are only released to the hundredths even though Omega's instruments measures it out to the thousandths. In speed skating, however, times are displayed to hundredths but ties are broken by looking at the thousandths, which is why the Netherland's Koen Verweij had to settle for second by 0.003 seconds in the men's 1500. In alpine, he would have shared the gold.

Because alpine skiers race one at a time—against the clock rather than against each other—we can only compare finishing times from photocells. When athletes are simultaneously racing however, Omega uses a photofinish camera that captures a whopping 2000 frames per minute. The photofinish gives the official times, when it is available.

The Inside Story of How Olympic Timekeeping Is So Amazingly Precise

Today's high-speed motion photography has made huge strides from its origins as the whim of a rich man obsessed with horses. Leland Stanford hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to settle the question of whether horses galloped with all four feet off the ground. The techniques Muybridge came up for high-speed motion photography set in motion a chain of inventions that eventually brought about the photofinish camera of today. Rebecca Solnit's excellent book River of Shadows delves deeper into the foundation of today's photo finishes.

While those famous images were captured in the late 19th century, it took until the 1948 London games for early version of both the photocell and the photofinish technology to make their way into the Olympics. At the time, film from the photofinish camera still had to be developed, so twenty or thirty minute wait wasn't uncommon. Today, it's completely instantaneous.

Images courtesy of Omega