Olympics winners determined by timekeeping technology

Credit: Brooke Kuei/SciTech Editor Credit: Brooke Kuei/SciTech Editor

Time is a relative concept — a human invention created to keep track of our existence. In a universe that is approximately 13.6 billion years old, for an Olympic athlete, milliseconds of the universe’s existence can be the difference between achieving life-long dreams and disappointment.

Last week in Sochi, the difference between gold and silver at the 2014 Winter Olympics men’s 1500-meter speed skating event was a remarkable .003 seconds, according to BBC. Measuring races with this extreme precision is a daunting task that is made possible by state-of-the-art technology.
Omega SA, a Swiss luxury watchmaker, is the official timekeeper of the Olympics for the 26th time. Using new technology in a three-part system, this company aims to ensure that the true winners will be standing on the podium at the end of the races.

Timing Olympic races can be complicated. As racers line up at the starting line, they eagerly wait for a visual or auditory cue to begin the race.
As described in the Smithsonian magazine, the ancient Greeks had a system of ropes, one at the racers’ knees and the other at waist level that would be dropped one after another signaling to the racer that the race was starting. Surprisingly, this system would have been fairly successful in preventing a racer from jumping the gun — or in this case, the rope.

In 1948, the traditional gun loaded with blanks to start the race was connected to an electronic system that launched a laser beam across the starting line which would be triggered by an athlete’s movement and was accurate to one thousandth of a second.

However, the traditional gunshot sound used to start races reaches each racer at different times, giving the nearest athlete an unfair advantage of a fraction of a fraction of a second.

According to BBC, last week in the men’s 1500-meter speed skating event, Poland’s Zbigniew Bródka and Koen Verweij of the Netherlands both crossed the finish line at one minute, 45 seconds flat. However, after a closer look, Bródka was awarded the gold for finishing .003 faster.

In these situations, according to Omega SA, they have developed a three-part system to always determine the correct winner. When the race is started, a sound is played, a light flash is emitted, and a start pulse is given to the timing device — all simultaneously. Racers wear incredibly lightweight electronic sensors called transponders on their legs to accurately record their times. Throughout the race, these transponders provide data of the racer’s distance and time.

At the end of the track there are two photoelectric cells similar to lasers that must both be triggered by the athlete’s skates to record the finishing time. This data is combined with a Scan’O’Vision photo-finish camera that far exceeds the power of the human eye. The camera provides the final ruling on the winner.
Omega estimated that it measured more than 650,000 times, distances, and scores using 230 tons of timekeeping, scoring, and data-handling equipment and more than 70 kilometers of copper and fiber-optic cables.

This system is utilized for many different events including downhill skiing, bobsled, and speedskating.

The combined use of technology has changed sports timekeeping in the Olympics forever.