Omega Timing’s Peter Hurzeler talks 2012 Olympic Games timekeeping innovations

by Chris LaMonica
July 17, 2012

Assuming its Official Timekeeper role of the Olympic Games for the 25th occurrence, the Games of the XXX Olympiad hold a unique significance for Omega Timing which is celebrating its 80th anniversary in partnership with the Olympic Games.  The Switzerland-based prestigious precision time and watch manufacturer comes full circle returning to London where it first birthed the modern sports timekeeping era in 1948 with photoelectric cells, athletics starting blocks and the slit photo finish camera.

Hence, the London 2012 Summer Games again represents for Omega Timing the opportunity to showcase their innovations and technological advancements in competitive athletic timekeeping.  And the Omega Time Board Member who initially joined the company in 1969 now presiding over his 16th and final Olympic Games humbly and somewhat surprisingly simplifies Omega’s latest efforts by stating, “The system to time is always the same but it’s maybe a little bit more sophisticated.”

The truth is the responsibility and ingenuity attributed to the task at hand is indeed a highly sophisticated research and development process involving coordination with world class athletes, governing bodies and years of study.

Today, a 74 year-old institution unto himself, Mr. Peter Hurzeler readies himself with an exuberance in preparation to witness and record the athletic events of the London Olympics with a system he labels as “fantastic.”   “Everything is controlled, the start is controlled, the wind speed is controlled and the finish is also controlled so you have a really clear document at the end,” states Hurzeler.

After approximately a four year developmental process, the new Omega starting blocks, which have being introduced this year at all Diamond League Meetings, for which Omega Timing is also the official timekeeper, will make their Olympic debut. “[It’s] what the athletes were asking for,” explained Hurzeler revealing, “We have also a new false-start detection system.”   Of replacing the old system which had its roots of origin at the 1976 Montreal Games Hurzeler states, “we developed a new thing because the athletes were not so happy with the old system because it was a mechanical system and the block was moving about 5 millimeters and now we have a system that’s absolutely fixed, it’s not moving at all.”

The new false start detection system of the updated blocks will abandon movement in exchange for “measurement” of pound-force against the back block to determine sprinters reaction times. “We are measuring the time between the starting gun and when the athlete is moving because to leave the starting block they had to push against and this power is very high,“ stated Hurzeler explaining that around the 2011 Lausanne Diamond League Meet, “We did a test last year with Asafa Powell and he was pushing 240 kilograms (529 lbs.) [so] as soon as he gives the time to push against the starting block, it means he will like to leave and we are measuring this in thousandths of seconds and if somebody is leaving before one hundredth thousandth of second, it’s automatically a recall, it’s a false start.”

Additionally, Hurzeler, who adds that the foot rests are also a little wider, explains Omega “tested a lot of athletes (inclusive of Omega brand ambassadors Tyson Gay and Jessica Ennis) because normally we have to work for the athletes, for nobody else, and we have to do something that they have the best material to make really the best time and, for this reason, we are working always with the athletes.”

And that work ethic will assuredly be most appreciated by the Olympic Men’s 100-meter final participants at the 2012 Games which promises to feature the fastest line-up in the history of the event with the aforementioned world's most sub-10 runner Powell alongside his fellow countrymen dual world recorder holder Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake as well as American sprinters Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.

“I remember last year in the Diamond League Meeting in New York,” recalls Hurzeler stating, “I showed the picture to Tyson Gay because he lost by a half of a thousandth of a second.”   Specifically, Hurzeler is referring to the 100-meter race at the 2011 Adidas Grand Prix at Randall’s Island where after three false-starts, Jamaica’s Steve Mullings defeated Gay by the narrowest of finishes which was announced after a period of judges’ discernment exceeded the NBC broadcast television window leaving viewers uncertain as to the outcome.

The 100-meter event is historically accustomed to false starts, with the 2011 Adidas Grand Prix event reminiscent of the 1996 Olympic Games Men’s 100-meter final in Atlanta that also featured three false starts as well with one attributed to Trinidad & Tobago’s Ato Boldon and two attributed to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games defending 100m Champion, Great Britain’s Lindford Christie who subsequently earned a disqualification from the Atlanta final which would ultimately witness Canada’s Donovan Bailey establish a new World Record of 9.84 seconds.

Unique to this race, was Omega’s inauguration of the measurement of running speed and acceleration, which displayed Bailey to have the slowest reaction time but produced the greatest acceleration and “consistently highest speed to the finish line.”

Now sixteen years removed from the 1996 Olympics, the consequential price tag affixed to the false-start penalty has significantly reduced its leniency from two to one with the IAAF 2010 rules change which no longer levies the first false start to the field before issuing an athlete ejection for subsequent false starts.  The dire consequences of this pressurizing rule have thus far consumed the 2011 World Championship 100m aspirations of Usain Bolt last August; hence, Omega’s timing system must be flawless and impervious to athlete protest.  “No I don’t think so,” offered Hurzeler when asked if the new blocks allowed any room for protest adding, “because with our new system we have a big advantage.  If somebody is moving a little bit before, you can force your neighbor to make a false start because he is maybe thinking he may leave; and this we have a curve in our computer and you can see if somebody is moving before all the others.”

With the athlete holding set position in the new blocks, Omega’s second advancement arrives with the starter’s pistol, which ironically has modern TSA regulations to accredit with its advancement.  “We had to change the whole thing because today it is forbidden to transport pistols in a plane,” explains Hurzeler, as Omega is responsible for sport timekeeping around the world, adding, “[and it is] for this reason we developed an electronic system.”

Of this new system, Hurzeler believes it to be “fantastic for the athletes” because as he states in the case of the 100m field, the sprinters “were always waiting until they got the sound from the gun [but] today each starter block has also its own loud speaker and they are all listening on the same time as the gun.”   Whereas Hurzeler does admit “it’s maybe not loud enough” for spectators, he informs that “the gun on the top has a flashlight and as soon as the start is done, the light is flashing and everybody can see it.”

And as is the case of ‘everybody seeing it,’ recent developments in Track and Field, have proven the finish line to now be as highly scrutinized as the starting line.

“I can tell you in the last twenty years we have never had a ‘dead-race,’ but that’s possible; I don’t know,” offers Hurzeler, for which he clearly states has not viewed any photo finish images nor has any first hand knowledge, of the dead-heat ruling at June’s U.S. Olympic Trials in the Women’s 100-meter between Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix.

Hurzeler states today, they “have the possibility to do 2,000 images a second,” which is a 100% increase from “four years ago at the Olympic Games in Beijing [where] we were able to make 1,000 pictures a second from the finish line from the first 8 millimeters.”    Furthermore, he explains, “We have always a judge in our control room.  We are showing him the result; normally, if everything is clear, if one is behind the other obscuring, maybe fifteen seconds to have all eight athletes” race outcomes decided.  Moreover, “It depends a lot on the officials from IAAF.  We give them the picture; we gave him the computer, he can push the cursor to the body, to the breast and then as soon as he says ok, he pushed the button and then it’s going to everybody, to the scoreboard, to the journalist, tv commentators, everywhere.”

Hurzeler admits in certain circumstances a blanket finish may require substantially more time, but asserts, “If [the result] is given to the public, it’s really official, there is no change at all.”

One change Hurzeler is pleased to welcome is “In Track and Field, they are timing the position, not the time finally,” adding, “you can have in one-hundredth of a second … more than one athlete; the first will be the win, the second will be second, third, fourth, but they all the same time.”

In contrast, the change he finds least agreeable with all the timing innovations is the notion or “feeling” he possesses that “Today … it is becoming more important who will be first or second or third, it’s not like twenty or thirty years ago.”  To which Hurzeler reveals in Beijing 2008 after the Men’s 100-meter Butterfly Swimming event in which American Michael Phelps bested Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by one-hundredth of second Omega “had several press conferences to make sure to explain to people how [they] are doing the timing and finally we were right.”   Hurzeler formulates his conclusion of today’s ‘first place importance’ by comparison to the nearly non-existent inquisition of Suriname’s Anthony Nesty’s 1988 Seoul Olympic Games upset defeat of West Germany’s Michael Gross and America’s Matt Biondi in the very same Men’s 100-meter Butterfly final with the very same one-hundredth margin of victory.

Hurzeler concludes, “We started four years ago to develop this new system and last year we tested it with the best athletes and we had also this system involved in the championships, local championships and European championships and today it’s official in the Olympic Games.”

Omega historical information and images provided courtesy of Omega’s London 2012 Press package.