Aug 6, 2021 - Technology

The tech that measures Olympic greatness

Photo of a referee at women's basketball with Omega timing device behind his back
A referee at women's basketball uses an Omega timing device to restart the game clock after the ball is inbounded. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

TOKYO — With each new sport added to the Olympics comes a new challenge: how to time and score the event. For 89 years, that responsibility has fallen to Swiss watchmaker Omega.

The big picture: What was once a job done by hand is an increasingly automated task, handled entirely, or aided by, technology.

What's new: Omega has added several new technologies for the Tokyo Games, including touch pads at speed climbing that use the athletes' own hands to stop the clock. (Speed climbing becomes the second sport, after swimming, to be directly controlled by the athletes.)

  • Omega has also added positioning sensors inside the bibs for some running disciplines to allow greater visibility into the performance that leads up to the finish.
  • A different type of wearable transponder was used to track open water swimming.
  • An RF transmitter helped with rowing, allowing measurement of boat speed, but also the number of strokes being taken by the athletes.

Between the lines: The primary goal is always getting the most accurate results, but Omega's technology also enables new views and data for spectators watching on TV (and in-person most years).

  • "We're going to be able to tell the story of how great the athlete's performance actually is," said Alain Zobrist, who heads the unit responsible for Omega's Olympic work.

Flashback: Omega started its role as official time keeper in 1932 by providing one watchmaker and 30 stopwatches, one of which was on display at an exhibit they had here in Tokyo.

  • Manual stopwatches were in wide use through 1968.
  • Photo finish cameras started being used in the 1940s.
  • For Tokyo, Omega has 530 timekeepers and 400 tons of equipment to track all the athletes and sports.

Yes, but: Almost no one got to see Omega's exhibit in Tokyo as it was part of a "fan park" that never opened to the public because of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The big picture: The lack of in-person spectators at this year's Games has made technology's role even more critical.

  • For example, Olympics organizers set up a separate video chat system to allow athletes to connect with family, friends and supporters immediately after their event.
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